Memphis Tiger football fans knew they were in for a long season well before the opening-day kickoff in Oxford, Mississippi. With the NCAA now sanctioning 12 regular season games, college football is closing in on the NFL in terms of exposure. But oh, how very long this 2006 season is proving to be for the U of M. With nary a victory over a Division I-A opponent and Halloween just around the corner, coach Tommy West's program is suffering its worst campaign since his second season on the job, a 3-9 downer in 2002. Three straight winning seasons, three straight bowl games . . . down the tubes with more than half the conference schedule still to be played. It's been ugly, but it shouldn't be that much of a surprise. And here are four major reasons why.
* The DeAngelo Factor. West, his staff, and every player on the Memphis roster said the right thing last August: "When you lose a player as talented as DeAngelo Williams, the rest of the team has to step up." This is precisely the right plan but, for a program like Memphis -- where a tailback of Williams' ilk is once in several lifetimes -- all but impossible to execute. The Tigers' three-time Conference USA Player of the Year corrected a lot of mistakes, and made up lost ground in 20- , 30- , and 40-yard increments. He helped carry last year's team to a bowl victory with a receiver playing quarterback, for crying out loud. Williams averaged just over 186 yards rushing last season, compared with a team average this year of 94.8. That difference in yardage makes up sever
al first downs for the offense, and lots more rest for the defense as the chains keep moving. Compared with replacing Williams, the void left by record-breaking quarterback Danny Wimprine after 2004 was a mere blip on the screen.
* Dynasties are built with depth. This is an uncomfortable truth for Memphis fans, but the fact is the U of M can catch lightning in the recruiting bottle now and then, all the while fighting off the overtures of SEC schools armed with their own scholarships and far more national television exposure than West's staff can offer, but the program will never accumulate the depth needed to avoid a down year -- "rebuilding year" -- every three to five seasons. When the NCAA limited scholarships to 85 per program, mid-majors like Memphis benefitted, since the likes of Tennessee or Alabama could no longer lock up five or six of the best tailbacks in the region on scholarship. But on the other hand, it cleared some of the trees in the forest of options for prep talent, to the point where it was no longer "Plan A: SEC, Plan B: Memphis," but now there's a Plan C, D, and beyond to consider. This is especially the case for players in the junior college ranks, a fertile ground for Memphis in years past. Thus the immediate leap in good fortune for the likes of UCF and Tulsa (last year's combatants in the C-USA championship game). Tiger fans must hope to strike a similar gold mine of talent in the near future.
* The oldest excuse in the book, and it's a good one, folks: injuries. Busted knees and twisted ankles are as much a part of football as marching bands and overstuffed mascots. And they've hit the Memphis program with fury this fall. Four receivers (Carlton Robinzine, Mario Pratcher, Antonio McCoy, and Earnest Williams) and a slew of defenders (Rod Smith, Mike Snyder, Derek Clenin, Dustin Lopez, Jada Brown, and Wesley Smith) have been slowed or lost for the season. With a new quarterback behind center, familiarity with a receiving corps is critical. As for the defense, shuffling personnel has been merely a symptom of its struggles. Which brings us to . . .
* Mix your signals, lose your direction. Follow me on this one: West's dismissal of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn after the season's third game may be the right move for the long-term growth of the Tiger program, but it was the wrong move for the 2006 squad. Athletes -- particularly young ones -- embrace formula. From the smartest catcher in baseball to, well, the less-than-brightest goaltender in hockey, an athlete needs to be given instructions so that his physical talents can take over. And as a defender in football, where you're reacting to your opponent to begin with, that instruction -- however misguided, even -- must be well digested before you take the field. Dunn's defense may have been unimaginative, predictable, vanilla. But it was understood by the young men fans hold accountable every Saturday. To ask this group to reboot itself as the season plays on was a huge gamble on West's part. To the coach's credit, it deflects blame from his defensive coordinator and players . . . to himself.
So hold on, Tiger fans. It's easy to root for a winner.