• There were more than 40,000 empty seats at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday. With 16,241 tickets sold for the Tigers’ game against SMU, the football team drew 2,000 fewer fans than did the basketball team — for a glorified practice — the night before. (Granted, those basketball fans entered FedExForum for Memphis Madness with free tickets.) Just when you’d like to think second-year coach Justin Fuente has started a real movement, one that will hook a community supposedly desperate for good local football, along come the Mustangs for an 11 a.m. kickoff. And with the dawn of college basketball season to provide an ugly contrast.
The Liberty Bowl is too big for the Tiger program (broken-record alert). Saturday was gray and gloomy — before kickoff — and the game started before most Memphians had digested breakfast. But this was the city’s flagship college program hosting a conference foe in mid-October. If such a contest can’t fill the Liberty Bowl to half its capacity, the statement for the future of Tiger football isn’t loud and proud, but meek and weak. Recruits do their homework. That pocket-collapsing pass-rusher from the Sunshine State? He can do the math on 16,000 fans in a 60,000-seat stadium. And Memphis just got crossed off his list of possible visits.
I’ll say this: Those fans sitting in the Liberty Bowl at halftime last Saturday are my favorite sports fans in Memphis. (There weren’t 16,000 left in the second half.) Their team down by four touchdowns (with a blustery wind making a cool day colder), those football fans in blue define “diehard” for me. They deserve better than the Tigers showed in the first half Saturday. When Fuente apologized before opening his postgame remarks, he was apologizing to them. There aren’t all that many, but those fans are the faces of the Memphis football program.
• With the Tigers down 31-3 at halftime, chatter in the press box centered on senior backup quarterback Jacob Karam. Might Fuente put Karam in the game to provide a spark to open the second half? It’s the nature of football: the backup-QB “spark.” Had Fuente replaced his entire offensive line for a series, a message would certainly have been delivered . . . but a spark created?
Paxton Lynch is Fuente’s guy. Resist this as the losses mount and you’re only complicating the frustration of cheering a team with multiple gaps yet to fill. Fuente gave the job to Lynch the second week of training camp in August, all but telling any followers of his program that one quarterback is head and shoulders better than the others on the roster (in Lynch’s case, literally). And when the keys are handed to a superior signal-caller, that includes driving along bumpy stretches of the road. The first time Lynch is removed in the name of a proverbial “spark,” he’ll be checking the sideline every time a play or drive goes sour. And that kind of anxiety compromises a quarterback’s ability to lead.
Jacob Karam is a prince of a human being, and a good backup quarterback. Period.
• At the season’s midway point, the Tigers find themselves with the same record (1-5) they held halfway through the 2012 season. Any signs of progress? Not much in terms of scoring, as the team is averaging 20.2 points per game compared with 18.3 after six games last year. (And remember 14 points last Saturday were courtesy of linebacker Ryan Coleman.) But the Memphis defense is allowing considerably fewer points (22.5 per game, compared with 31.7 in ’12) and yards (331.0, compared with 423.3). And while the offense isn’t reaching the end zone more frequently, it is moving the football, averaging 359.7 yards per game, compared with 288.2 after six games last season.