When the Memphis Tigers take the field at East Carolina this Saturday, they will have gone 27 days without tasting a victory. That's a long time in the course of a college football season, merely three months to separate programs with Top 25 aspirations from those happy with a mid-December bowl berth. Having lost two straight games — a heartbreaker to UCF and a thorough teeth-cleaning at Missouri — Memphis (4-4) will start its final third of the season knowing the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl may be this season's pinnacle, in which case we'll toss out the word "pinnacle." What lessons can we take from the Tigers' first eight games? Here are four.
• A soft September did this team no favors.
I sat in the Liberty Bowl press box on October 6th as the Tigers wiped the field with UConn Huskies and had a rather uncomfortable conversation with another reporter, one who's been covering the Tigers even longer than I have. "Who is this team? What's their strength? Can Brady White beat a team with premium recruits? Is the defense as bad as it looked at Tulane?"
To be asking such questions in October
is scary. Those of us who watch every snap of every Tiger game felt unfamiliar with a team almost halfway through its regular season. The Missouri spanking would have been better — big picture — had it taken place in early September. Coaches need to learn what they have, too. Whatever adjustments (to scheme or personnel) defensive coordinator Chris Ball might make will come too late to impact much of the season, and way too late to impact the Tigers' chances for reaching the American Athletic Conference title game.
• The Tigers have dropped a notch in speed.
This is the easiest team-wide component to measure on a football team. Strength and "football IQ" get lost in the mass of bodies on every play. But as one team outruns another — be it on offense or defense — games are won and lost. And the Memphis defense is surrendering big plays as though it's down a man. After pulling within four points (21-17) at Mizzou, the Tigers gave up four touchdowns in less than nine minutes. A turnover played a role, but three of the Missouri scores covered at least 44 yards. Stare at the film as long as you'd like, but I'll summarize: Missouri players outran Memphis players, all the way to the end zone. (Let's acknowledge the SEC-AAC gap while we're here. However much the Memphis program has grown in recent years, a mid-level SEC program is of a different talent stripe.)
• Memphis is not a bad football team.
I'll point you to the Tiger record book and circle recent records: 2-10 (2006), 2-10 (2009), 1-11 (2010), 2-10 (2011), 3-9 (2013). Memphis has fielded some boot-licking football teams since the turn of the century, but the 2018 bunch is not among them. With merely seven points against East Carolina, the Tigers will move into the top 10 teams in the program's history as measured by points scored, and with at least three more full games to play. But as of today, the Tigers' biggest win this season came over a Connecticut team that's 1-7 and staring up from the AAC's East Division cellar. This must change. A win over East Carolina (2-5) would do it, but barely. Memphis needs to circle the Houston game (November 23rd) in thick, red ink. The regular-season finale at the Liberty Bowl (the day after Thanksgiving) is the last chance the U of M will have to beat a team with real claws.
• Darrell Henderson is mortal.
Proof came with a hamstring injury in the Missouri game, one that sidelined the Tigers' star tailback after only four carries and 15 yards. Henderson's in a virtual dead heat with Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor for the national lead in rushing, trailing in total yards (1,155 to 1,148) and yards per game (144.4 to 143.5). But Henderson's yards per carry (10.1) dwarfs Taylor's (6.4). Needless to say, Henderson faces a lighter schedule in November than does Taylor, so this will be a fun race to follow, particularly if Henderson is fully recovered from the hamstring tweak. (Coach Mike Norvell has indicated Henderson will play at East Carolina.)