While preparing his team for Saturday's American Athletic Conference championship game, Memphis coach Mike Norvell finds himself the subject of speculation surrounding coaching vacancies at Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri, as well as Florida State.
It all comes with success, Norvell said this week after his No. 17 Tigers (11-1, 7-1 AAC) won their third consecutive AAC West Division crown by beating East champ No. 20 Cincinnati (10-2, 7-1 AAC) last Friday to earn home-field advantage for the title-game rematch.
"I'm grateful to be a part of a program that is continuing to grow as a national brand of what we're doing," Norvell told reporters this week. "It is a compliment that people think well of our program, but my focus this week is about this game. We're absolutely excited about the opportunity to compete for a championship."
The AAC's title contest is one of five conference championship games that will be rematches of regular-season meetings, but it's the only one that will be a rematch of the previous weekend. The Tigers hosted the Bearcats in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium the day after Thanksgiving, winning 34-24 with quarterback Brady White throwing for 233 yards and two touchdowns and running back Kenneth Gainwell rushing for 87 on just 15 carries.
"It's unique," Norvell said of the immediate rematch. "It's the first time I've ever had the experience of playing an opponent back-to-back weeks. I think you have to approach each week as a separate entity. We learned some things last week probably getting a better sense of match-ups.
"Obviously, they had a plan of attack as well as we did. There's going to be some adjustments made. There's going to be some things you take from the experience and try to put your guys in the best position to be successful. But it's going to be a unique week of preparation."
There likely will be one key difference this time. Cincy coach Luke Fickell held out starting quarterback Desmond Ridder last week as a precaution to protect the sophomore from further harm to his injured shoulder.
"Desmond Ridder is our starting quarterback," Fickell said. "He's been our starting quarterback for two years. That's who we are, that's what we do. Obviously, last week was a unique situation, but that doesn't change what Des has done to get us to this point."
In his first college start, redshirt freshman Ben Bryant completed 20 of 32 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown at Memphis but was picked off twice. He also was sacked five times to end up with negative rushing yardage.
Norvell said the Tigers will prepare for both quarterbacks. Memphis will be without a key defender with the season-ending foot injury to veteran cornerback T.J. Carter, who had made 39 consecutive starts. Senior Chris Claybrooks, who returned the opening kickoff against Cincinnati 94 yards for a touchdown, will start in Carter's spot.
This will be the first trip to the AAC title game for Fickell and the Bearcats, while Memphis is looking for its first win after losing the last two games at UFC, 62-55 in double overtime two seasons ago and 56-41 last year.
"They've been extremely competitive," Norvell said of those last two title games. "We actually had a lead in both of them, and we didn't do a good enough job finishing those games."
--Field Level Media