A few thoughts from one of the most over-stuffed sports weekends of the year:
Back away from the ledge, Memphis Tiger football fans. There are more important things than winning football games. Or being competitive in football games. Saturday’s unsettling 44-point loss to Arkansas State seems to have established rock bottom for second-year coach Larry Porter’s program. Three particularly ugly numbers jumped out at me. First, the Tigers only gained 82 yards on the ground after rushing for 164 in the opener against Mississippi State. Secondly, the U of M offensive line allowed five sacks (after allowing but two against the Bulldogs). And on the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers allowed more than 600 yards against a team from the Sun Belt Conference.
Instead of pondering inclusion in a BCS league, the Memphis football community needs to establish that the program belongs in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). This Saturday should clarify that debate, as Austin Peay — members of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision — visit the Liberty Bowl. Lose to the Governors, and we’ll redefine rock bottom. But again, there are more important things.
• By sweeping Atlanta over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals have their first five-game winning streak of the 2011 season. With 16 games to play, the Cards are tantalizingly close (4.5 games) to the Braves in the race for the National League wild card. Alas, only six of the Cardinals’ remaining games will be at Busch Stadium and four will be played on the road against the mighty Phillies. If the Cardinals were to go 12-4 the rest of the way, the Braves would have to finish 6-9 for St. Louis to reach the playoffs.
If this is the last month we see Albert Pujols in a Cardinal uniform, what a ride it’s been. He’s 11 RBIs and just a few points on his batting average from an unprecedented 11th straight season hitting .300 with 30 homers and 100 runs driven in. But his 2011 season will be remembered for one more number: double plays. Sunday against the Braves, Pujols tied a 38-year-old Cardinal record (held by Ted Simmons) by hitting into his 29th double play. He’s likely to break Miguel Tejada’s National League record (32 in 2008 with Houston) and could challenge the major league record held by Hall of Famer Jim Rice (36 with Boston in 1984). Even when he struggles, Pujols seems to keep good company.
• I love watching Roger Federer play tennis. Especially as his legendary game begins to gradually fade. Too often, the greatest athletes hit a wall late in their careers, beyond which the images get ugly (Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, to name four). With Federer, he remains so good that only two men on the planet — Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — can consistently beat him. But these days, they consistently beat him. (This is the first year since 2002 that Federer has not won at least one major title.) In Saturday’s semifinal at the U.S. Open, Federer won the first two sets against the top-ranked Djokovic. As recently as two years ago, that would be lights out. (Federer lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year after taking the first two sets from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.) After Djokovic evened the match at two sets, Federer battled his way to a pair of match points. Lights out, right? Instead, the gradual fade continues. Something tells me Federer won’t let the fade last long.
• It’s time the U.S. Open men’s championship gets moved — permanently — to prime time on Monday night. The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four has proven this to be a pretty decent formula. For the third straight year, the most important tennis match of the year in North America will start while most of us working stiffs are still on the clock. Why isn’t this under the lights, in prime time?
The event — typically played on Sunday afternoon — has long struggled with early-season NFL action. And Monday Night Football isn’t going anywhere. But to play this match during rush hour on the east coast is like holding Oscar night on a Wednesday.
• Tiger football fans looking for a salve until basketball season starts need to make their way to the Mike Rose Soccer Complex and see the Tiger women’s soccer team. I was there last Friday and saw Memphis whip Ole Miss, 3-0, to improve their record to 6-0, the best start in the program’s history. (They’re now 7-0 after beating Charlotte Sunday.) The Tigers’ next five games are on the road, but they return home on Friday, October 7th for the first of four straight home games. Memphis has won four straight Conference USA championships and is ranked firmly in the nation’s Top 20. And consider this: with six goals against Charlotte, they outscored the Tiger football team last weekend.