Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

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• Five games provide some healthy perspective on the strength of a football team. The Tiger offense isn’t the juggernaut unleashed against Austin Peay in the season opener, though based on last Saturday’s win at Cincinnati (only the fourth time in Memphis history the Tigers have gained 600 yards), the offense may well be a junior-juggernaut. The Bearcats, of course, gave up 700 yards the previous week against Ohio State, so wave these numbers at your discretion.

The Tigers struggled mightily at Ole Miss on September 20th, but in light of the Rebels’ upset of Alabama last week, trailing 7-3 in Oxford (in the fourth quarter, no less) may become a calling card for this team. Memphis took hits at Vaught-Hemingway — on both sides of the ball — unlike any they’ll take the rest of the season. As Sam Craft and a band of replacement runners carved up Cincinnati for 299 rushing yards, the Memphis offensive line must have felt like a man or two had been removed from the field for the Bearcat defense. There were gaping holes and time aplenty for Tiger quarterback Paxton Lynch (311 yards). Memphis has rushed for more than 250 yards in three of its five games. They exceeded 200 but once the entire 2013 season. This is very good, folks.

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Since the turn of the century, Memphis has won four games before October 15th only three times. In 2000 and 2001, the Tigers still finished with a losing record (4-7 and 5-6, respectively). The 2004 team went 8-4. Amid all the (rightful) joy over a “new era” of Tiger football, this good, clean start to the season may be the freshest element. Come mid-October, football teams are beaten up. As temperatures drop, fatigue peaks. But give a team something to play for, make Halloween the start of a stretch drive — not just for bowl eligibility, but for a premium bowl — and greatness often emerges. Justin Fuente and his coaching staff will find motivation easier with every win they put in the book.

This week’s tilt with Houston could be the first of seven straight games in which the Tigers are favorites. (Read that again.) The combined record of the Tigers’ remaining foes is 10-23. After being picked to finish third in the American Athletic Conference, the Cougars opened their season with a loss to Texas-San Antonio and have but two wins (over Grambling and UNLV). Houston has a defense that will resist more than that of Cincinnati, though, one that ranks second in the American, allowing 313.6 yards per game. (The Tiger offense averages 441.6.) For the first time in several meetings between these programs, Memphis may actually have the quarterback advantage. Lynch has thrown for 1,158 yards, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and only three interceptions. The figures for Houston’s John O’Korn: 944, 51.7, 6, and 8. Reports have indicated the Cougars may go with Greg Ward Jr., more of a dual threat than O’Korn.

Keep your eye on my two favorite stats of the season so far. The Tigers are plus-7 in turnover margin, having gained 12 and lost five (second in the league). And Memphis has been remarkably efficient when given a chance to score. On 24 trips into the opponent’s red zone, the Tigers have scored 22 times . . . 17 of those touchdowns. Protect the ball. Score when you can. Simple game, right?

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