• There are four FBS programs in the state of Tennessee and, for too long now, the Memphis Tigers have been the cellar dweller in this mythic division of college football. Tennessee has been off the schedule, mercifully, since 2010. The U of M hasn’t played Vanderbilt since 1989 (the Commodores have won seven of 12 meetings). Since resuming a series with Middle Tennessee in 2007, the Tigers have lost five of six games, including two (2007 and 2012) at the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers can recalibrate the Volunteer State pecking order this Saturday.
It really should have been recalibrated last year in Murfreesboro. Memphis outgained the Blue Raiders, 350 yards to 284. The Tiger defense throttled Middle’s running game, yielding an average of 2.1 yards per carry. Brandon Hayes and Marquis Warford combined for 139 yards on 21 carries. But the Tigers had to settle for two short field goals (one in the second quarter, another in the third), the difference in a 17-15 loss. Oh, and the penalties. Memphis was flagged 15 times for 145 yards (the yardage figure is the second-most in Tiger history).
If the Tiger offense resembles anything like the one that battled UCLA for four quarters, Saturday should be a different story. Paxton Lynch is a different quarterback from the one starting his second college game in Murfreesboro. Motivation should be a factor in the U of M’s favor. (Remember, too, that Middle Tennessee is now a member of Conference USA, the league Memphis left behind.) Unless the Tigers again run into a flag-happy officiating crew, a win Saturday will be there for the taking.
• The Tigers have a reasonable chance to finish September with a .500 record for the first time since starting the 2004 season 3-1. (In 2005, Memphis beat UTEP on October 1st to even its record at 2-2.) With 10th-ranked Ole Miss looming (September 27th), the Tigers need to secure a win at home this Saturday. In tennis terms, Memphis must hold serve through the rigorous first half of its schedule. If the Tigers can beat Middle this week, then split the two games in early October (at Cincinnati and home against Houston), the Tigers can enter a much softer second half of the season with a 3-3 record. And if you glance at the American Athletic Conference standings today, the six teams Memphis will face after the Houston game — SMU, Tulsa, Temple, Tulane, USF, and UConn — have combined for a record of 5-11. Four wins in the second half would be a reasonable forecast today, making bowl eligibility a certainty with as few as two wins in the U of M’s first six games.
• It’s hard to measure the performance of an offensive line with numbers. But there are two that stand out for Memphis in its performance at UCLA on September 6th. Facing as large and quick a front seven as it will all season, the Tiger offensive line helped Memphis gain 164 yards rushing on 39 carries (4.2 yards per carry) and allowed but a single sack of quarterback Paxton Lynch. (Over the course of the 2013 season, Memphis averaged 3.8 yards on the ground.) And consider the Tiger rushing attack in the Rose Bowl was supplementary to the U of M passing game (305 yards).
The Tigers will win games here or there with skill-position stars. They’ll win consistently and regularly when they can win the push at the line of scrimmage. So keep your eyes on the big guys with the high jersey numbers: Taylor Fallin, Tyler Uselton, Gabe Kuhn, Michael Stannard, and Al Bond were the starters (left to right) against the Bruins.