Twenty-seven wins (so far) over the last three years for the Memphis Tiger football team. This is a good time to pause and consider another recent three-year period (2009-11) during which the U of M won a total of five games. By the most quantifiable measure (victories), the Memphis football program has improved more than five-fold during a single presidential administration. This has occurred, remember, in the middle of the SEC jungle, where attracting talent — the depth of talent required to win consistently in college football — has proved nearly impossible for generations. The turn-around has been Herculean.
Here are a few achievements of the 2016 Memphis Tigers that will stay with us.
• Points galore
. Offense sells tickets. Offense keeps television viewers tuned in. The last three Memphis teams have scored more points than any previous team over the program's 105-year history. The 2016 Tigers have scored more points in 12 games (474) than the 2014 team did in 13 (471), and you'll remember that 2014 team featured Paxton Lynch at quarterback and finished ranked 25th in the country. Should Memphis score 49 points in its bowl game (merely 10 points above its average), it will break last year's season record for points in a season (522). For perspective, the season point totals during that miserable stretch from 2009 to 2011: 262, 173, 195.
. Entering this season, the Memphis single-game record for receptions was 13 (Maurice Avery in 2003), for receiving yards, 186 (Bob Sherlag in 1965). Isaac Bruce held the single-season records for receptions (74) and receiving yards (1,054). All of these marks now belong to junior Anthony Miller, the former walk-on from Christian Brothers High School whose two fourth-quarter touchdowns beat Houston last Friday. The game-winning score was Miller's 15th catch of the contest. Miller had 250 yards in a Tiger loss to Tulsa on October 29th. With a bowl game to play, he's caught 84 passes for 1,283 yards. Before the 2015 season, then-Tiger coach Justin Fuente described Miller as "different from anyone else we have." He saw what was coming. Should Miller return for his senior season — and he's suggested he will — the Tiger receiving record book can be placed on the highest proverbial shelf in the Hardaway Hall of Fame.
• Big wins
.The Tigers didn't beat Ole Miss this season, but they did handle a Top-20 team at the Liberty Bowl (Houston) for a second straight season. You have to go back a quarter century
to count the two previous Memphis wins over Top-20 opposition (Tennessee in 1996, USC in 1991). And with hindsight, the Tigers' 34-27 win over Temple at the Liberty Bowl on October 6th is significant, as it's the only conference loss suffered by the Owls, who play Navy this Saturday in the AAC Championship. Counting wins is one thing. Notching memorable victories helps build a culture of success.
• Backfield stars
. Miller stole the show with his romp through the receiving record book, but he got there on the right arm of junior quarterback Riley Ferguson, the transfer who entered the season as an unknown value asset. He proceeded to pass for 3,326 yards (second in program history) and 28 touchdowns, tying the record set by Lynch last season. Ferguson was named Offensive Player of the Week by the AAC three times. And let's not forget the efforts of Doroland Dorceus. The junior tailback gained 783 yards on the ground and averaged a stellar 6.2 yards per carry. He scored ten touchdowns and now ranks fourth in Tiger history with 25 for his career.
• Steady crowds at the Liberty Bowl
. In 2013, the Tigers hosted seven games and sold a total of 199,760 tickets (28,537 per game). For seven games this season, the U of M sold 261,419 tickets (37,345 per game). That is growth that can be counted in blue-clad bodies (the difference is greater than the stadium's current capacity). This year's average attendance dropped by more than 6,000 from last year's, but Ole Miss visited in 2015 and more than 60,000 fans at that game boosted the season total considerably. (The Rebels won't be back until 2019.) The goal, I've felt all along, should be 40,000 fans in the Liberty Bowl for a Tiger football game. Any game. (The largest crowd this season was for the opener against SEMO: 42,876.) It's a shame an upper portion of the Liberty Bowl couldn't be shaved off for game day, because the atmosphere would be enhanced without empty sections framing fans on either side of the stadium. Winning and scoring (a lot) sell tickets. Based on 12 games under the watch of coach Mike Norvell, the future appears bright for U of M football.