It’s a question you hear about more often in the NHL or NBA playoffs after teams clinch an early postseason berth or series and get several days off before the next round.
Rest versus rust?
The same query also applies for No. 21 Memphis, which by the time it takes the field Saturday morning for its American Athletic Conference game with visiting SMU will have been idle since a 41-14 rout of Tulsa on Nov. 3 in Oklahoma.
Tigers coach Mike Norvell says the schedule, which was altered early in the season when Hurricane Irma ripped through Florida and caused games to be postponed or canceled, has kept his team from establishing a week-by-week rhythm.
“It has been difficult to get into a routine this year,” he said. “Even with coming back to a Saturday, coming off a bye week, there are slight schedule modifications that you have. They have done a nice job all season long of preparing for the day they have in front of them and trying to maximize that.”
Other than a 40-13 loss at unbeaten Central Florida, Memphis (8-1, 5-1 AAC) has taken care of business. Its offense has scored at least 30 points in every other game besides the loss, and its defense has managed to come up with just enough plays despite the loss of some key players.
The Tigers’ ability to adjust and persevere could earn them a rematch with UCF. If Memphis wins this week or next Saturday at home against East Carolina, it will capture the AAC’s West Division title and a berth in the AAC title game. Central Florida still has to negotiate a tough season finale with South Florida in order to seal the East Division crown.
“We talk about showcase games,” Norvell said. “This is a showcase game. If we can find a way to have success, everybody around this community is going to be able to celebrate that because we are checking off one of those goals.”
SMU (6-4, 3-3) figures to make the Tigers work for a full 60 minutes. The Mustangs have made a nice turnaround under third-year coach Chad Morris, the former Clemson offensive coordinator. SMU has been held under 30 points only twice, and isn’t that far away from being 8-2.
The Mustangs have lost two in a row, but UCF didn’t exactly run it off the field in winning 31-24.
Navy needed a last-play field goal to pull out a 43-40 win last week in Annapolis.
“The second half was championship-caliber football,” Morris said of the game at Navy. “But I was very disappointed in our first half performance. I did not see that coming. I did not think it was remotely possible.”
SMU is averaging 39.6 points per game, leaning heavily on a balanced running attack and a three-pronged passing game. Three backs have rushed for at least 440 yards, led by the 806 of Xavier Jones, who picks up 5.7 yards per carry and has scored seven touchdowns.
Receiver Trey Quinn needs only four catches this week to reach 100 for the year. He has 1,008 yards and eight scores, while Courtland Sutton has chipped in 55 receptions for 875 yards and 11 touchdowns. Big-play threat James Proche is averaging 20.9 yards on 33 catches.
Quarterback Ben Hicks has rolled up 2,849 yards on 58.8 percent accuracy with a 24-7 touchdown-interception rate. The Mustangs are compiling 497.1 yards per game.
The Tigers counter with an explosive passing game triggered by quarterback Riley Ferguson. He’s completed 60.7 percent of his attempts for 2,881 yards in nine games, notching 27 touchdowns and throwing just seven interceptions.
Anthony Miller is the go-to guy in the receiving corps, collecting 67 receptions for 905 yards and 11 scores. Eight other teammates have between 11 and 28 catches, an indication of how willing Ferguson has been to spread the ball around.
Darrell Henderson paces the ground game with 776 yards and four touchdowns in only 95 carries, a sparkling 8.2 yards per carry average.
The bottom line is both teams are mirror images, built for shootouts. The scoreboard operator may be the busiest person in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium again.
“Any time you have a championship game, one that has big implications, you have to be good in all three phases,” Norvell said. “It’s going to take our best effort this week.”