Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football


There's no feel to this season. Not yet. No rhythm (if such can be felt in a sport with weekly games). The star of the Tigers' opener — two weeks ago — was Hurricane Harvey, or at least the last vicious breaths of that ravaging storm that so thoroughly drowned parts of Texas. Memphis escaped with a win over Louisiana-Monroe, but in front of no more than 10,000 drenched fans. Then last week's game at UCF was mercifully cancelled, this time a hurricane proving too much, even for a football game. So we're left with what many consider the Tigers' biggest game of the year — UCLA and a forecast of sunshine! — and very little sense of how strong this year's Memphis team might be. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and his band of talented receivers were declawed by the weather system on August 31st. Will they be ready to counterpunch a Bruin attack led by NFL-bound Josh Rosen under center, an offense that erased a 34-point lead in less than 20 minutes against Texas A & M? Sixty minutes of football at UCF — in reasonable conditions — would have suggested an answer. Until 11 a.m. Saturday morning, no one really knows, including the Memphis coaching staff. We'll have a feel for the 2017 Memphis Tigers by mid-afternoon Saturday.

"Our guys, I have to give them a compliment for the maturity they've shown," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell during his weekly press conference Monday. "They've handled a lot of different things and quite a good deal of adversity here early when it comes to the schedule and their routine. They're definitely looking forward to this Saturday."

When I think of Memphis-UCLA I think of basketball. The Tigers have played in three Final Fours and faced the Bruins in two of them. Most famously, Bill Walton became a household name in the 1973 championship game, beating what remains the most famous team in Memphis sports history, one led by Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon. Thirty-five years later, the U of M (with Derrick Rose) whipped UCLA (with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) in San Antonio.

The Tigers and Bruins have only played once before on the gridiron, a 42-35 UCLA win in Los Angeles in 2014. That was the Tigers' second game of the season, Paxton Lynch's second start at quarterback, and the first real indication that a corner might be turned for the Tiger program. Memphis had a chance in the fourth quarter to knock off the country's 11th-ranked team. There seemed to be a renewal of hope two weeks later when Memphis handled Middle Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl. They went on to win eight of their last ten games and earn a ranking of 25 in the final AP poll. Here's hoping this week's game deepens the association of these two schools on the football field.

• AAC commissioner Mike Aresco likes describing his league — and the programs that comprise it — as "Power Six." The implication is that the AAC deserves equal standing with the likes of the SEC, Big 10, and Pac-12 . . . the fabled "Power Five" that centers college football. Since the Tiger program's revival in 2014, Memphis has played seven games against Power Five teams and won three of them. Two of those victories came against Kansas, though, one of the weakest programs in the classification.The 2015 upset of Ole Miss was historic (it extended a Tiger winning streak to an astounding 13 games). The four Power Five losses during this period: UCLA, Auburn (in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl), and Ole Miss twice. A win over UCLA — as televised live by the ABC cameras — would be a significant step in the right direction for Mike Norvell and this program. And it would give a little more credence to the notion of a "Power Six" league.

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