Tigers Go Backyard Bowling

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The event we now know as the AutoZone Liberty Bowl has been played every December since 1959, the first six years in Philadelphia and, since 1965, at the stadium here in Memphis that shares its name. Only seven college bowl games have a longer history. The University of Memphis has fielded a football team since 1912, the last 53 years at that very same Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, many of those seasons forgettable, a precious few — like 2017 — bursting with happy memories. For the first time, come December 30th, these two Bluff City gridiron institutions will meet as one. If you can numb the pain from last Saturday in Orlando, this is a perfect marriage.
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About that pain. If you have a rooting interest in the Tigers, there's no way to shake the disappointment of their 62-55(!) loss to UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship. Had the Knights won decisively, as they did in the teams' first confrontation on September 30th, the Tiger fan base takes a deep breath, licks the wound, and breaks out the bowl-game t-shirts, wherever their 19th-ranked team happens to land. But the Knights did not win decisively. Memphis came up one field goal (albeit from 51 yards) short of the AAC title and a berth in the Peach Bowl, one of the New Year's Six. The Tigers had a chance in overtime to secure that same prize but couldn't stop UCF on its first (or second) offensive possession. That close to playing in one of the six most prestigious postseason games in college football. Much will have to happen for the program to get such a chance again.

That loss means a second-tier bowl for the Tigers, at least in harsh, clinical terms. The New Year's Six is first tier, the two national semifinals (this year the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl) virtually beyond the reach of "Group of Five" programs like Memphis. But remember, we now have 40 bowl games. Second tier? That beats the hell out of a third-tier bowl (say, the Alamo Bowl). For that matter, we can now classify bowl games as fourth-tier (Music City, Pinstripe) or even fifth-tier (Camellia Bowl? New Mexico Bowl?). The 2017 Liberty Bowl will be the most prestigious postseason game Memphis has ever played, and by a considerable margin.

Consider: The Tigers have played in ten bowl games, and only one of them had existed as many as ten years when Memphis appeared in the game. Remember the 1956 Burley Bowl? Of course you don't. First played in 1945, that game between Memphis State College and East Tennessee State (won by the Tigers) was the last Burley Bowl ever played. The 1971 Pasadena Bowl? For twenty years, that event was called "the Junior Rose Bowl." Because it was played between junior college programs until 1967. The Tigers played in the third New Orleans Bowl (2003), the sixth GMAC Bowl (2004), the ninth Motor City Bowl (2005). And so on. Two of the recent bowl games Memphis has played in — the Motor City and Miami Beach (2014) — no longer exist.

When Memphis and Iowa State kick things off on December 30th, the Tigers will be playing in the 59th-annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl. No, it's not a trip to a tropical region or the grand stage of the New Year's Six. But it will be a prestigious event that just happens to be held on the same turf the Tigers call home. This is like leaving for college, only to return home for summer and falling in love with someone you'd passed in high school halls for years. (I know this magic distinctly.)

And let's not forget the football team Memphis will be cheering. If it can't already be called the greatest in the history of the program, it's now leading the conversation. A win in the Liberty Bowl would give the Tigers 11 for the season, a total never reached in more than a century of Memphis football. The team has scored the most points (572) in program history and needed only 12 games to break the record set in 13 contests by the 2015 team.

And bless the football gods for giving Memphis fans one more chance to see seniors Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller do extraordinary things in blue and gray. Before the end of the first quarter, Ferguson should become the first Memphis quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in a season (he needs 29). If Miller catches eight passes, he'll become the first Memphis receiver to pull down 100 receptions in a season. And 93 yards would give the Christian Brothers High School alum 1,500 for the year. We will not see these numbers regularly, if ever again. Ferguson and Miller, it can be said, are the Finch and Robinson of Memphis football.

Embrace the disappointment, if such is possible. The Peach Bowl was there for the taking. (Note: The first Peach Bowl was played in 1968, three years after the Liberty Bowl game had moved to Memphis.) But a top-20 Memphis football team is playing in one of the top 10 (out of 40!) bowl games in the country. Right here in Memphis. Liberty is a blessing.


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