• Just how big is this week's Memphis-SMU showdown?
I'm calling it the biggest Tiger game in the 55-year history of the Liberty Bowl. We've had big upsets (i.e. Tigers over Tennessee in 1996), but has there ever been a game at the Liberty Bowl between two teams in such lofty positions — nationally — and with so much at stake? This is only the fifth time since 1965 (when the Liberty Bowl hosted its first game) that Memphis has reached November with no more than one loss. The first two occasions (1966 and ’67) get the asterisk treatment, as the season began later and the Tigers were merely 5-1 each time. In 2015, Navy came to town sporting a 6-1 record, the only other time — before this Saturday — a game was played this late in the season at the Liberty Bowl between teams with no more than one loss each (the Tigers were 8-0 and lost that game to the Midshipmen).
Navy was not ranked, though, four years ago. Both SMU (15th) and Memphis (24th) will take the field Saturday night among the AP Top 25. As for what's at stake, let's see: first place in the American Athletic Conference's West Division and, with it, "control your destiny" privileges for a berth in the AAC championship game and the possibility of a — big gulp — New Year's Six bowl invitation. The game will be played in front of ABC's cameras for an entire country to see what this "American" league is all about. The league's top quarterback (SMU's Shane Buechele) against the league's top freshman (Tiger tailback Kenneth Gainwell). One team averaging 43 points per game (SMU), the other just under 40 (39.5). Three days before the basketball Tigers open their season, Memphis will be a distinctly — and historically significant — football town.
• The Tigers' path to a New Year's Six bowl game is (somewhat) clear.
Only one team from a "Group of Five" conference gets to play in one of the six most prestigious bowl games. There are currently four such schools ahead of Memphis in the AP poll, with two of them (15th-ranked SMU and 17th-ranked Cincinnati) still on the Tigers' schedule. If Memphis can handle the Mustangs and Bearcats, that would leave 20th-ranked Appalachian State and 21st-ranked Boise State among current contenders, and neither of them have two "Group of Five" rivals to beat for bonus points among bowl voters. (Memphis could theoretically play Cincinnati twice, should the teams each win their division of the AAC.) It's hard to envision a two-loss team earning this prestigious bowl nod. It's also hard to envision Memphis not
getting the call should the Tigers run the table and win the AAC championship.
• Tigers ranked here, there, everywhere.
On the subject of "Group of Five" institutions, Memphis is the only one that can currently claim a spot in the AP Top 25 for both football and basketball. (Penny Hardaway's Tigers are 14th in the preseason rankings.) And the truth is, football or men's basketball may not be the top team on campus right now. The U of M women's soccer team is 15-1-1 and ranked 11th in the country. (The Tiger men's soccer team is just outside the Top 25.) I can't remember a time when University of Memphis athletics were so thoroughly infused with positive vibes. These are the days we bottle and shelve in the memory bank, there for soothing when (if?) tough times arrive. For now, sport your blue and gray proudly.