Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

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• In the world of sports marketing, it’s better to be lucky than good. Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl, more than 46,000 football fans had a chance to thumb through the University of Memphis Gameday magazine, senior linebacker Tank Jakes gripping a football on the cover. How brilliant the magazine’s editors appeared by game’s end.

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Starting for just the fifth time in his college career, Jakes performed like an undersized Ray Lewis in leading Memphis to an easy win over Middle Tennessee: two sacks (one for a safety), a forced fumble (that led to a Bobby McCain touchdown), and a fourth-quarter interception (the second of his career) that sealed the victory. On Monday, Jakes was named the (quite obvious) American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week.

Tiger coach Justin Fuente described Jakes as “heady” during his postgame press conference, acknowledging the smarts that contribute to the kind of impact Jakes makes on a football game. Jakes himself described the “edge” with which he plays, always being the “smallest player on the field.” If you’re looking for the personification of the current Memphis program — relatively small but full of fight and vigor — you need look no further than number 13 in your game program. That guy on the cover.

• They’ve come to be called “stretch games.” A small (or struggling) program schedules a team from one of the “power five” conferences, in part to measure progress in the weaker program, often to reap the benefits of larger-than-normal attendance. This week’s tilt at 10th-ranked Ole Miss is a “stretch game,” to say the least, for the University of Memphis. It’s actually the Tigers’ second such game this month (see UCLA, September 6th).

I’ve been outspoken against the Tigers playing SEC foes. Since Memphis beat Tennessee in 1996, the Tigers have played 27 games against teams from the country’s best conference . . . and lost 25 of those games. There have been some big crowds at the Liberty Bowl to see UT, Mississippi State, or Ole Miss bludgeon the home team, but beyond the turnstile count, I can’t see the benefit for the Memphis program. Each of these games is a three-hour sampling for elite recruits to see just how wide the gap is between the U of M and the SEC. They are the polar opposite of promoting a program.

All that said, Saturday is going to be fun. Memphis and Ole Miss have played 59 times and some of the Tigers’ most celebrated wins came at the expense of the Rebels. In 2003, Memphis beat Eli Manning and friends on national television, one of the Tigers’ two SEC wins over the last 17 years. (The other came the next season in Oxford.) Fuente seems to agree with me on the matter of scheduling this kind of “stretch game.” Before the season opened, he told me there would be one per season on future schedules and insisted he has no “inferiority complex” with the SEC. So enjoy Saturday’s game. Just don’t get used to it.

• In measuring both offense (480 yards) and defense (nine tackles for loss, three forced turnovers), Saturday’s win was the Tigers’ most complete since Fuente arrived before the 2012 season. But you get the sense we’re still at the beginning, the embryonic stage for a program with higher aspirations. After the victory Saturday night, I asked the Memphis coach what could be improved for this week’s game at Ole Miss. Fuente grinned slightly, shook his head, then delivered the following: “We threw an interception on third-and-long; we gave up a couple of pressures offensively; we didn’t score enough in the red zone; when we had a sudden change, we didn’t respond defensively. Those are the things that stick out in my mind, off the top of my head.” The most dangerous threat to a growing program is satisfaction. Don’t think Justin Fuente and his staff are satisfied with the Tigers’ 2-1 start. And be glad they’re not.

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