• The Tigers earned the scrutiny they've received this week.
Navy was utterly beatable last Saturday in Annapolis. And a win would have solidified the Tigers' status as favorites in the American Athletic Conference's West Division. But dreary rain, four turnovers, and 43 minutes of Navy possession time
were enough to tame, if not ruin, big Memphis expectations for 2018. (Honestly, remember that possession time. Despite having the ball for merely 17 minutes, Memphis outgained Navy, 378 yards to 316. Navy was so beatable, but you generally need to have the ball to score.)
The Tigers' final turnover — a Patrick Taylor fumble early in the fourth quarter — will be the hardest to forget as the season unfolds. Leading by 12 points at the time, Memphis coach Mike Norvell chose to hand the ball to Taylor, his gifted second option at tailback. Instead of giving the ball to Darrell Henderson, a man who'd scored three touchdowns and averaged 16.3 yards on 13 carries. This is what we call an embarrassment of riches. Memphis has not one, not two, but three talented players capable of breaking free at the line of scrimmage (don't forget Tony Pollard). But it can confuse what should be simple late-game play-calling. Pardon me for second-guessing a rather sharp coach, but let me first-guess Norvell for the 10 games left on the Tiger schedule. Close game, late . . . give the ball to Darrell Henderson. If you're gonna lose, lose with Option A.
• The Tigers must sweep their next four games.
Memphis players get to wear their Sun Belt gear the next two weeks, with Georgia State (41-7 losers to North Carolina State) and South Alabama (55-13 losers to Oklahoma State) on their way to the Liberty Bowl. With Tulane (in New Orleans) and UConn to follow, this is an early-season lull in the Tiger schedule, but one in which a Memphis slip could prove ruinous. Two league losses would all but eliminate the chance for a return trip to the AAC championship game. If Memphis can hold serve and enter its tilt with UCF on October 13th at 5-1, we'll have a huge game on our hands at the Liberty Bowl. A stumble over the next four weeks and that game is merely an underdog hosting a team with New Years Six bowl aspirations.
At his weekly press conference Monday, Norvell seemed to recognize the importance of a return to form. "I can tell you these guys will respond in the right way," he said. "This has not been foreign to us. Unfortunately, we have been here before. We know what it takes to move forward."
• Mike Norvell aims to win his 20th game as Memphis coach Friday night, and this is significant.
You have to go back to the Carter presidency to find a Memphis coach who reached 20 wins in merely his third season. Richard Williamson went 7-4, 7-4, and 6-5 from 1975 through 1977, giving him exactly 20 wins over his first three seasons on the Tiger sideline. (The legendary Spook Murphy merely won 18 games over his first three seasons, though teams played 10 games per season in the Fifties and Sixties.) Norvell has continued to build what Justin Fuente started in 2012, and we've reached the point where a one-point loss at Navy in early September feels like a sloppy face-plant. Retain perspective. In a region of SEC behemoths, Memphis Tiger faithful are acting like 25 to 30 wins over three years is the norm. Let's at least acknowledge it's a new normal.