Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

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• When Memphis takes the field this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers will have played one football game in six weeks. The program hasn't had a "season" as much as a pair of one-off teasers to open the months of September (a win over Arkansas State) and October (a loss at SMU). Few sports are structured more rhythmically than football, with each day of "Game Week" devoted to different components of preparation, be it film review, injury treatment, or the institution of a game plan. With the exception of injury treatment — a single game in six weeks does wonders for sprains, bruises, and such — the Tigers will play what amounts to a third opening game of their 2020 season when UCF comes to town.
Dreke Clark - GEORGE WALKER/UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS
  • George Walker/University of Memphis
  • Dreke Clark

But the fun starts Saturday. At least if Memphis and eight other programs can keep the coronavirus outside the room. The Tigers will play eight games in eight weeks, all conference affairs with the exception of Stephen F. Austin on November 21st (an FCS opponent that replaced UT-Martin on the schedule). Three of the next four will be at the Liberty Bowl (the only road game being at Cincinnati on Halloween). With more fans gradually allowed to attend games (12,500 are expected this Saturday), that feel for football season may finally arrive in the Mid-South. Just mask up and keep your distance till game day, fellas. After all, teams face two opponents every week in 2020.

Memphis has to get over the UCF hump. The Tigers have played the Knights 13 times since 2005, and lost 13 times. They've faced UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game twice, and lost both times. Memphis has lost to UCF in one-win seasons (2010) and Memphis has lost to UCF in 10-win seasons (twice in 2017). In other words, the Tiger program has reached new heights over the last decade . . . but still has a daddy.

Josh Heupel's team will visit Memphis already saddled with a league loss (to Tulsa), so the game has enormous implications as teams jockey for the top two spots in the AAC (no divisions this year to determine combatants for the championship game). The Knights scored 49 points in a win over Georgia Tech and 51 in beating East Carolina. (The Golden Hurricane held them to 26, and in Orlando.) McKenzie Milton may not be quarterbacking the UCF attack (sophomore Dillon Gabriel is now behind center), but the Tiger defense will be tasked with forcing just enough punts or turnovers for the Memphis offense to outscore this longtime nemesis. Even in an abbreviated, interrupted season, a Tiger victory this weekend would be historic.

Everywhere you look on NFL Sundays, you see Memphis Tigers. There's no greater validation for the rise of the Tiger program than to see former stars in blue-and-gray now making an impact with "the shield" on their jerseys. Anthony Miller is catching passes for the Chicago Bears while Antonio Gibson is scoring touchdowns for Washington's team. Bobby McCain is starting at safety in his sixth season with the Miami Dolphins while Chris Claybrooks is finding his way onto the field as a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tony Pollard is returning kicks and taking handoffs for the Dallas Cowboys while Dontari Poe plays defensive tackle in Big D. Darrell Henderson leads the L.A. Rams with 260 rushing yards while Jake Elliott (Philadelphia Eagles) and Stephen Gostkowski (Tennessee Titans) have each won Super Bowls kicking field goals, the latter now 12th on the NFL's all-time scoring chart. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and top recruits have their sights set on playing beyond their college years. Memphis has developed an NFL highlight reel few programs outside the "Power Five" can offer these days. Bodes well for both future Saturdays and Sundays in Tiger Nation.

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