The University of Memphis football team kicks off year six of the Tommy West Era this Sunday (huh?) in Oxford against the Ole Miss Rebels. Here are some Tiger nuggets to chew on as the pigskin starts flying this weekend.
TOP RETURNEE -- Wesley Smith (senior safety). Smith doesn't have the star power of Danny Wimprine or DeAngelo Williams, but it's likely the native of Oxford, Mississippi, will be cashing NFL checks a year from now. The top returning tackler from 2005, Smith aims to become the first player in Tiger history to earn first-team all-conference honors four years, and only the second in the history of Conference USA (Louisville tight end Ronnie Ghent pulled the trick from 2000 to 2003. Smith opens the season on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Trophy, awarded each year to the nation's top defensive back.
TOP ROOKIE -- Martin Hankins (junior quarterback). It's stretching things to call someone who's already passed for 7,777 yards and 65 touchdowns as a college quarterback a rookie, but Hankins will be a welcome newcomer to Tiger fans with memories of last season's quarterback shuffle. Having started for two seasons at Southeastern Louisiana, Hankins will either win the job outright or force senior Patrick Byrne to elevate his level of play well beyond where he was a year ago before a broken leg in the Ole Miss game ended his season.
BIGGEST HOME GAME -- Tennessee (Sept. 30). It's been 10 years and four defeats since the U of M knocked off Peyton Manning and the Vols at the Liberty Bowl. Wasn't that game supposed to mark the dawn of a new era for Tiger football? (Someone should tell Rip Scherer.) If ever the Big Orange were ripe for the picking, it's this fall. Coming off a 5-6 campaign that raised more questions about quarterback Erik Ainge than it answered, UT will be fighting to maintain supremacy in the state they represent (they lost to Vanderbilt last November for the first time in 23 years). Last year in Neyland Stadium, the Tigers came up merely four points short, and that was without DeAngelo Williams. Is this a contest between programs heading in opposite directions, or the same old Rocky Top song and dance?
BIGGEST ROAD GAME -- UAB (Oct. 7). Legion Field has been a Tiger Trap in recent years. If Memphis scores some points, their defense doesn't hold (witness the 35-28 loss in 2004). If the Tiger D stands firm, the offense can't find the end zone (witness the 13-9 loss in 2000). Considering Memphis has lost its last three HOME games to the Blazers, this is a date Tommy West and his staff should have had circled the day the schedule was released. As a division rival, UAB is right there with Southern Miss among the teams Memphis has to beat to harbor thoughts of a prominent bowl bid.
TREND WORTH WATCHING -- While reaching a bowl game is the professed goal of every Division I-A program not named Ohio State, Texas, or Notre Dame, let's be realistic. There are no fewer than 32 bowl games, which means more than half of the 119 I-A schools will be playing a "postseason" contest. The real goal is to reach a JANUARY bowl game. (Believe it or not, there are 11 games to be played next January, including the GMAC Bowl, which will feature the second-ranked team from Conference USA.) Based on the last three seasons, the U of M is getting closer to January football. Their bowl game in 2003 was played on December 16th. Then in 2004 it was December 22nd. Last year's Motor City Bowl was played on December 26th. The next, best, step would be to win the C-USA championship and play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on December 30th.
TREND WORTH IGNORING -- Not only have the Tigers never won on Sunday, they've never so much as scored on the Sabbath. Of course, the last time they played on Sunday was 1924 (when they lost to something called the Tennessee Doctors, 58-0). Tommy West will likely ignore this factoid during his pregame address in Oxford.