Liberty Bowl: Memphis can set program record with win over Iowa State

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson (4) and wide receiver Anthony Miller (3) have put up huge numbers this season. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Autozone Liberty Bowl
Iowa State (7-5) vs. No. 20 Memphis (10-2)
Dec. 30, 12:30 p.m. ET, Memphis (ABC)
Memphis -4, O/U: 65.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Iowa State: Iowa State had one of its most eventful seasons in a long time in Matt Campbell’s second year running the program. The Cyclones shook off early losses to Iowa and Texas and pulled off two of the biggest upsets of the season. First, ISU took down No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman — the Sooners’ only loss of the season. That was the first career start for QB Kyle Kempt, who engineered a four-game winning streak that also included a 14-7 decision over No. 4 TCU, which was undefeated at the time. The end of the year did not go as well. ISU lost three of four down the stretch by a combined 12 points.

Memphis: Memphis’ only two losses of the season came at the hands of the nation’s only undefeated team: Central Florida. The Tigers won three games (UCLA, Navy, Houston) by four points or less, but also had several blowouts. All the while, Memphis put up huge numbers offensively, averaging 47.7 points (No. 2 FBS) and 548.2 yards (No. 4 FBS) per game. The Tigers captured the AAC West division to clinch a rematch with UCF in the AAC title game. It was one of the best games of the year, but UCF emerged with a 62-55 win in 2OT. That sent the Knights to the Peach Bowl and Memphis to a bowl in its home stadium.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Joel Lanning, LB, Iowa State: Lanning has been one of the best stories in college football. He was Iowa State’s starting quarterback for most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons but was moved to linebacker in the offseason. The transition went about as well as anybody could hope. The senior led the team with 110 tackles from the middle linebacker spot. He also tied for the team lead with five sacks and was second with 10.5 tackles for loss.

Iowa State’s Joel Lanning (7) thrived after switching from quarterback to linebacker this season. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Riley Ferguson, QB, Memphis: Our Pete Thamel documented the unique path of senior quarterback Riley Ferguson earlier this year. He signed with Tennessee out of high school, spent almost a year away from the game working labor jobs and played a year at the junior college level before landing at Memphis, where he has excelled in two seasons as Mike Norvell’s starter. He threw for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2016 and has already bested that this year with 3,971 yards and 36 touchdowns. He’ll get NFL looks.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Memphis’ offense is a heck of a lot of fun to watch when it gets going — and it usually gets going. Ferguson and fellow senior Anthony Miller (92 catches, 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns) have been one of the most productive QB-receiver duos in the country. It will be a big challenge for Iowa State, but the Cyclones will be motivated. ISU, which gives up only 21 points per game, hasn’t played in a bowl since 2012.

WHAT’S ON THE LINE: Iowa State has played in only 12 bowl games in its history, most recently against Tulsa in, coincidentally, the Liberty Bowl. ISU lost that one, as well as the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl. The program’s most recent bowl win was a 14-13 decision over Minnesota in the 2009 Insight Bowl. With a win, ISU would reach eight wins for the first time since 2000.

Memphis has played in a bowl in the last three years, but lost the last two. Memphis’ most-recent bowl win came over BYU in the 2014 Miami Beach Bowl, which was marred by a postgame brawl. More importantly, a win would set a single-season record for Memphis. The Tigers have never won more than 10 games in a season.

PREDICTIONS

Nick: Memphis 36, Iowa State 27
Sam: Iowa State 35, Memphis 34

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!