• Since the Tigers' remarkable win at Houston on October 19th (their sixth victory of the season), not a single person has spoken the words "bowl eligibility"
to me. Remember when simply becoming eligible for one of more than 30 bowl games was a big deal for the Memphis program? When you go three decades without playing a postseason game (as Memphis did from 1972 to 2002), qualifying for an extra game in December is indeed a big deal.
Those days are gone. The Tigers will play in a bowl game for a fourth straight season, an unprecedented stretch for the program. We've reached the point where the strength of a bowl game matters to Memphis, and the 2017 Tigers have the chance to play on or near New Year's Day, one sacred "Group of Five" slot open in the still-new format that sends 12 teams to "New Year's Six" bowl games (including four to the national semifinals). The very idea of Memphis being discussed for such elite placement — here in late October — is a cultural shift that would have been impossible to envision as recently as 2011. Better yet, the Tigers control their positioning (at least until selection of the "Group of Five" representative). Win their remaining four games and Memphis plays for the American Athletic Conference championship. Win the AAC title and "bowl eligibility" will seem as distant a notion as the T formation.
• If you can turn away from the heroics of Anthony Miller, Riley Ferguson, and Tony Pollard (five kickoff-return touchdowns in two seasons
) just briefly, the play of Austin Hall and T.J. Carter on the Tiger defense has transformed this team
. During one of the first visits I had with Memphis coach Mike Norvell, he emphasized that playmakers must be found on the defensive side of the ball. A potent offense is invaluable, but defensive playmakers can turn a tight game. That's precisely what we saw on October 14th, when two Hall interceptions were integral in a three-point win over Navy. Then five days later, Carter grabbed his fourth interception of the season, forced a fumble, and accumulated 14 tackles in a four-point win at Houston. To no one's surprise, Hall and Carter were each named the AAC's Defensive Player of the Week. The Tiger defense has room to improve, starting with its pass rush. But with Hall (a sophomore) and Carter (a freshman) in the secondary, holes are going to be filled and mistakes (by opposing offenses) punished. Lots to like in this playmaking pair.
• Through four games of its seven-game home schedule, the Tigers have averaged 34,579 fans at the Liberty Bowl. This is a deceiving average, as only 10,263 tickets were sold for the season-opener against Louisiana-Monroe, a game played in near-hurricane conditions. Memphis has drawn more than 40,000 for its last three games (UCLA, Southern Illinois, and Navy). It will be interesting to see the turnout for the three remaining home games: Tulane (Friday), SMU (November 18th), and East Carolina (November 25th). These aren't the kind of opponents that typically drive ticket sales, but the circumstances (as noted above) are unique this year. Every game the Tigers win makes the next one more significant. Memphis will surely average more than 30,000 fans a fourth straight year,
a streak last seen from 2003 to 2006 (three of those "DeAngelo Years"). The question, really, is can the average climb to 40,000? It's happened only four times in Liberty Bowl history: 1976, 2003, 2004, and 2015.