When the Memphis Tigers open their season Sunday against the 8th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels, they’ll have their sights set on a sixth bowl season in seven years. But fully 68 of the 120 schools in college football’s top division will realize the “dream” of a bowl appearance in 2009. How about the Tigers’ first appearance in the Conference USA championship game? Coach Tommy West would be the first to tell you this is the next step in the growth of his program. Here are five keys to the Tigers taking such a stride.
* Forget Sunday’s game. Win by a little or lose by a lot, the much-anticipated annual opening with Houston Nutt’s Rebels has no bearing whatsoever on the C-USA race. The game will do wonders for clarifying strengths (or exposing weaknesses), as Ole Miss will be the most talented team Memphis faces this fall. It’s a hard concept for longtime Tiger supporters to grasp, but in the scheme of this program’s development, the Marshall game (September 26th) is more important than the Ole Miss affair.
* Hold serve at home. Let’s presume Conference USA’s East Division won’t be won with more than two losses in the league. The Tigers have their work cut out for them, with the top three teams from the West Division (UTEP, Houston, and Tulsa) added to their schedule in place of the West’s bottom feeders (SMU, Rice, and Tulane). And Memphis has to travel to Houston and Tulsa in late November to finish its regular season. The Tigers simply have to win their four league home games (Marshall, UTEP, East Carolina, UAB). The Tuesday-night showdown (on October 27th) with the Pirates could be the game of the year. Having lost three straight to ECU, the Tigers will face a team — on national television — with four defensive players on the preseason all-CUSA team. A division title could hang in the balance.
* Split on the road. November will be a month from hell for the Tigers. It starts with a visit to Knoxville on the 7th, then is followed by a home tilt against UAB, a trip to Houston, then a trip to Tulsa (the day after Thanksgiving). The 2009 season won’t so much wind down as heat up, and if the U of M isn’t healthy and in contention for a bowl appearance (at least), the season will get ugly well before your turkey is out of the oven. The goal should be to win two of the four road games against C-USA competition. And the most likely victims may be the first two: Central Florida (October 3rd) and Southern Miss (October 17th).
* Get experienced, fast. The offensive line has one returning starter (Dominik Riley). The secondary is packed with athletes competing for four spots (five for the frequent nickel packages). But is there a game-changer among these units? (D.A. Griffin is a preseason all-conference selection, but as a kick returner.) The Tigers’ media guide lists 16 defensive backs on the team’s depth chart. Exactly two of them — Deante’ Lamar and Alton Starr — are seniors. If a team can’t protect the quarterback or defend the pass, scoreboards start smoking. Watch these units and you’ll know early on how far the 2009 Tigers will go.
* Lean on the running game. Few Tiger teams have had the one-two threat at tailback that this year’s squad will have. Curtis Steele (1,223 yards last season) and Wisconsin transfer Lance Smith should eat up chunks of yardage if the offensive line develops under assistant coach Rick Mallory. And the best way to protect a team’s weakness — I’m looking at you, secondary — is to keep it off the field. With a senior quarterback and a pair of senior wideouts playing big roles this fall, the tendency at times will be to sling the pigskin downfield and see what happens. The smarter, big-picture approach for the 2009 Tigers will be to let the threat of Carlos Singleton (or Duke Calhoun) supplement the rushing of Steele and Smith. Check your stat box at game’s end. If Memphis runs more than it passes, you’re likely to be celebrating a victory.