Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

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• No Norvell, No Gainwell, No Crowd . . . No Problem.

The Memphis Tigers won their season-opener. It's what they do — seven straight years now, after losing nine consecutive openers from 2005 to 2013. Star tailback Kenneth Gainwell shook up the roster by announcing his opt-out a week before kick-off, so sophomore Rodrigues Clark rushes for 109 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Offensive wizard Mike Norvell departed for Florida State, so Ryan Silverfield takes command of a team that tops 500 yards (yet again), converts nine of 17 third-down snaps and a fourth down via fake punt, defensive lineman Joseph Dorceus (?!?) scampering 25 yards to retain possession . . . with Memphis up 17 points.
Rodrigues Clark takes the ball from Brady White. - JOE MURPHY
  • Joe Murphy
  • Rodrigues Clark takes the ball from Brady White.

Oh, and the Tigers' passing game seems to be in capable hands. Senior Ph.D. candidate Brady White completed 26 of 36 passes and tossed four touchdowns, in so doing becoming only the third Memphis quarterback with 60 touchdown connections. Damonte Coxie caught eight passes for 90 yards (ho-hum), but tight end Sean Dykes did his best Travis Kelce impression, hauling in 10 passes for 137 yards and a pair of scores. It all felt normal, formulaic even. A primetime win on national TV for the University of Memphis? We've been here before.

• Pandemic football stinks . . . but it's the best we've got.

Football was made for television. From the dimensions of the field to the contrast and collision of uniform colors, the sport provides an aesthetic — if such can exist in a game so violent — unlike any other. But there's a sadness to football in 2020, starting with the virtually empty parking lots as kickoff nears. And no sound system can replicate the noise of a crowd (even as "small" as 20,000) celebrating a big touchdown. The pandemic conditions are especially cruel for the Memphis program, which has seen nights when fewer than 10,000 people chose to attend a game. (The Larry Porter jokes were flying over social media last Saturday night.) Here's hoping college football finds ways to safely and gradually welcome more fans to stadiums across the country. Seems like a long shot, and against the grain in a world where college students are studying as much from dorm rooms as lecture halls. But let's hang on to hope. In the year we'll remember as 2020, it's the best and only approach.

• Arkansas State felt right . . . but the Tiger program can do better.

Not that long ago, it seemed like former Memphis coach Justin Fuente and I were the only men in town not interested in seeing an SEC program on the Tigers' schedule. (The year was 2013.) It was nice to see the Red Wolves (merely a Sun Belt foe) back in town for the first time in seven years, but Tiger athletic director Laird Veatch should aim higher, and ambitiously. It's a crime against Mid-South football culture that the Tigers haven't played the Arkansas Razorbacks in 22 years. The programs will meet again, but not until we have a new U.S. president (one way or another), in the year 2025. Mississippi State will visit the Liberty Bowl next year, but Ole Miss has fallen off future Tiger schedules and Memphis hasn't faced Tennessee in a decade. (Imagine what the Memphis winning streak might be against the Vols.) One of these four programs should meet Memphis every season. Could be an eight-year rotation (home and away for each). The marquee home game on this year's Tiger schedule is UCF (October 17th), a legitimate conference rival for Memphis. But the kind of game that could fill the Liberty Bowl to capacity (remember those days)? Hardly.  

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