Three Thoughts on Tiger Football


For all its problems, football is the most human of sports.
No game penalizes mistakes — be they physical errors or matters of decision — like football. (Baseball is designed around failure and in basketball, you succeed too frequently. Hockey and soccer have goaltenders to erase others' misplays.) The Memphis Tigers, it could be said, are one late fumble (at Navy) and one late holding call (last Saturday against UCF) from being 6-1 and nationally ranked. Instead, in part because of that lost fumble and holding call, Memphis is 4-3, out of the running for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) championship, and nowhere near consideration in the national polls.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Coach Mike Norvell acknowledged his team's mistakes after the loss to UCF, more aware than most that a near-perfect game was required to end the Knights' 18-game winning streak. "Each game of this magnitude," he noted, "you have to be great at the little things." The Tigers were great at little and big things in taking a 30-14 lead in the first half against the nation's 10th-ranked team. But even seemingly smart decisions — like icing UCF's kicker just before halftime — backfired. (After missing his first attempt as a timeout was called, Matthew Wright split the uprights for what proved to be three critical points.) It's a brutal truth, but mistake-free football is required to pull an upset. Ninety percent on the gridiron often means failure.

We've reached a point where Ed Oliver and Bryce Huff can be mentioned in the same sentence. You're surely familiar with Oliver, the Houston Cougars' sublime defensive lineman, all but certainly a top-three pick in next year's NFL draft. In six games this season, Oliver has 11.5 tackles for loss. And that's with every offensive coordinator Houston plays scheming to prevent Oliver's damage. Well, through the Tigers' first seven games, junior linebacker Bryce Huff also has 11 TFLs. (Ten of Huff's are of the solo variety while Oliver has had nine solos.) Huff has more than capably filled the starting slot vacated by Genard Avery, combining with Curtis Akins, Tim Hart, and Austin Hall to give Memphis one of the best second-level defensive units in the AAC. From reserve linebacker as a sophomore to first-team all-conference? That may be Huff's storyline come December.

There's a cousin you hate seeing at every family reunion. Played too rough as a child, drinks too much as an adult, yet still pulls into the driveway with the fanciest car, year after year. Such is the relationship between Memphis and the SEC. Since the Tigers upset Peyton Manning and Tennessee on that fabled night in 1996, Memphis is 3-27 against SEC opponents, the three victories all coming against Ole Miss (in 2003, 2004, and 2015).

Memphis beat Missouri in 1996 (two months before the upset of Tennessee) and lost to the Tigers in 1999, but neither game counts on that SEC record, as Mizzou was then a member of the Big 12. Can this Tiger tussle become a new rivalry with old friend Barry Odom calling the shots in Columbia? It's hard to believe so, with the teams not playing again until 2023 (at the Liberty Bowl). Neither coach would suggest Saturday's winner gains a meaningful recruiting edge. So what's to gain? Any win over SEC opposition — wherever the game is played — is meaningful for Memphis. And the hometown Tigers don't want to go four weeks without tasting victory, a potential scenario weighing on the program with a bye week preceding the next game on the schedule (at East Carolina on November 3rd). I'm not sure we'll see a desperate Memphis football team Saturday afternoon. But I think they'll be determined.

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