When Memphis travels to Bowling Green in Week 3, much more is at play than a meeting of two teams ranked in the CFB Huddle Group of Five/Independent Top 10.
It’s also more than “a pretty significant step up in competition this week” from a Week 2 rout of Kansas, as Memphis head coach Justin Fuente described in his weekly press conference — though that it is a prominent theme of Saturday’s encounter.
The MAC’s Bowling Green is “a significant step up” from the Big 12’s Kansas, as it is the Big Ten’s Maryland, the latter of which the Falcons proved last week. The Terps had no answer for Bowling Green’s uptempo, high-flying offense in the second half, giving up 42 points after halftime.
Quarterback Matt Johnson powered the second-half deluge, throwing all six Falcon touchdowns to highlight a 36-of-55, 491-yard afternoon.
“Their quarterback is a fantastic player,” Fuente said on Monday’s American Athletic teleconference call.
You can file that one under No Kidding. Johnson leads the nation in passing yards through two games, racking up over 900 in games against the Big Ten’s Maryland Terrapins and SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers.
Week 3 is Johnson’s third time up against a marquee opponent, and another big game should have him firmly on the national radar.
A Memphis defense that lost eight starters from a breakthrough 2014 team sees its first legitimate challenge — and what a challenge that is. After struggling early against overmatched Kansas, Fuente said Tigers thrust into more prominent roles were on the business end of some stiff criticism.
“Some new guys playing defensively needed to hear it from the players and the coaches,” Fuente said.
Unless the message really resonated, the Memphis defense is in for a long afternoon. Johnson’s play in head coach Dino Babers’ free-wheeling system could launch the quarterback into the Heisman conversation, so long as Bowling Green keeps winning and Johnson keeps airing it out effectively.
Both Johnson and Babers provide two of the key plot points to Saturday’s intriguing affair. Babers spent almost three decades as an assistant across the country before getting his first head coaching gig at Eastern Illinois just three years ago.
All Babers did there was reach a couple of FCS Playoffs and, in 2013, coach the Walter Payton Award winner as the subdivision’s best offensive player. That player, Jimmy Garoppolo, parlayed his success under Babers into a second-round NFL draft selection.
Johnson has similar potential.
Johnson’s outstanding play under Babers is further testament to the coach’s offensive acumen, and more evidence that Dino Babers is a hot prospect on the rise.
In fact, few games this season will pit two more intriguing coaching prospects against one another. Both Babers and Fuente deserve Power Five attention, which will come sooner than later — if it’s not already.
Babers is a branch from the Art Briles coaching tree. Mounting attention for Baylor in its success under Briles commands more attention for those who helped make it possible.
Babers said in this week’s MAC teleconference call that Briles “gets all the credit” for “changing [his] mind” about tempo. In the same way Baylor’s been able to use an explosive offensive philosophy to rise to the national stage, Babers’ profile is on the ascent implementing it at Bowling Green.
Coaches will often talk of “the culture” of a program, more specifically “a culture of winning.” It’s one of those buzz phrases that might invoke eyerolls until seen in action.
Memphis went from Conference USA basement dweller to American Athletic Conference championship contender almost immediately under Fuente.
The former TCU assistant accomplished that by instilling a culture of winning, a concept conveyed in the scene he described among the Tiger running back corps.
Four ball-carriers have split most of the team’s carries through two games. Each has at least one touchdown, and three have multiple. No one from the quartet of Jarvis Cooper, Sam Craft, Jamarius Henderson or Doroland Dorceus has more than 27 rushes.
Pile those carries onto one guy — and the obvious candidate is Cooper, a former 4-star recruit — and he could build an impressive statistical resume. However, sharing the workload is part of Memphis’ approach to team success.
“The thing I’m most proud of is they’re taking pride in each other’s accomplishments,” Fuente said. “For the first two weeks, none of those guys has gotten a tremendous amount of carries. We split it all up, and I think they’re taking pride in that. They enjoy watching the other guys play, they enjoy cheering [each other] on, which, I think, serves as a great example to our team.”
That Babers and Fuente cultivated their respective, winning philosophies under rivals Briles and TCU’s Gary Patterson only adds another ingredient to what should be a terrific Week 3 showdown.