• The best thing that could happen to the Tiger program — shy of a mass transfer from that program in Tuscaloosa — is the start of Conference USA play. There are eight winless teams remaining in the FBS and four of them reside in good ol’ C-USA: Tulane, UAB, Southern Miss, and you-know-who. The combined record of the eight teams left on the Memphis schedule is 9-26. The only team left on the schedule with a winning record today? Mighty East Carolina at 3-2.
Last week during our radio chat, Dave Woloshin asked me what a good finish to the season for the Tigers might look like. And I told him three wins in C-USA play. The truth is, the number isn’t exactly a stretch when you consider the performances to this point by C-USA teams. It’s hard to envision Memphis winning on the road against East Carolina or Marshall. And UCF (now 2-2) may be better than their record. But the other five games? Hope, thy name is C-USA.
•This Saturday’s tilt with Rice will be the Tigers’ 17th and final C-USA opener. Know how many of these Memphis has won? Three. None since they beat Army in 2000, Rip Scherer’s final season as head coach. It’s a lengthy trend that doesn’t make much sense. The Tigers fielded good, bowl-bound teams in 2003 and 2004. They beat Eli Manning and Ole Miss to open the ’03 season 2-0, then got whipped by Southern Miss. In 2004, Memphis beat Ole Miss (again), then scored a combined 99 points to beat Chattanooga and Arkansas State. But when they opened C-USA play at UAB, they fell to the Blazers, 35-28.
It’s as though the Tigers are afraid of first place in this second-tier league. Only once has Memphis started 2-0 in C-USA (they beat Tulane and Cincinnati in 1996). Since 2006, the only league opener the Tigers have lost by fewer than 10 points came in 2008, a 42-35 loss at the Liberty Bowl . . . to Rice.
• Rice may be the finest academic institution in C-USA, but should the Owls lead the series with Memphis on the gridiron? (Okay, they’ve only played three times, but Rice has won the last two.) They’ll enter Saturday’s game with a single win (by a single point, at Kansas on September 8th). In their four losses, the Owls have given up 49, 56, 54, and 35 points. (Only Marshall has given up more points among C-USA teams.) On the other hand, the Rice offense has averaged 30.2 points, tied for third in the league.
Saturday’s game may be one in which the Tiger offense has to trade punches with the Owl attack, and take advantage of a special teams play or two (as they did at Duke and Arkansas State). Rice has given up the most first downs (138) in C-USA and is allowing a whopping 559 yards a game. (The Tiger offense averages 300.8.) Come Saturday night, we’ll see how much action the Liberty Bowl’s fancy new scoreboard can take.