As year four of the Tommy West era kicks off Saturday in Oxford against the Ole Miss Rebels, just how high have expectations risen for University of Memphis football? In Conference USA's preseason coaches poll, the Tigers were voted a close second behind the Louisville Cardinals. (These two rivals will face each other November 4th on national television, as ESPN's Thursday-night game.)
In the same poll, three Tigers were picked all-conference: junior defensive back Wesley Smith, junior wide receiver Maurice Avery (safely removed from the basketball court), and junior tailback DeAngelo Williams. Furthermore, Williams was forecast to repeat as C-USA's Offensive Player of the Year, after establishing new school records for rushing attempts (243) and yards (1,430) while reeling off 10 straight 100-yard games last year. He has fully recovered from the knee injury suffered in the penultimate regular-season game, and Williams, a native of Wynne, Arkansas, finds himself a preseason Athlon All-America.
And then, of course, there's quarterback Danny Wimprine. It only seems like the fifth-year senior has been in a Tiger uniform since the Hackett administration. Having turned the U of M passing record book inside out, Wimprine aims to build on his national exposure as MVP of the New Orleans Bowl triumph last December. In early June, when rising seniors are more often than not returning kegs between naps, Wimprine was coordinating a workout schedule with his receiving corps and identifying goals for the season ahead. "We've started something here," deadpanned Wimprine. "But you're never satisfied. Right after we finished the bowl game, I was thinking about when we're going back to work. Let's get better."
West's program might define "getting better" in a few different ways, considering the summer just past. First, senior tailback Derron Parquet (487 yards last season as Williams' backup) and junior nose tackle LaVale Washington were charged with torching an SUV in Eads, Tennessee, on June 2nd. Then a week later, four Tigers -- Washington, Avery, junior tight end John Doucette and redshirt freshman tackle Abraham Holloway -- were named in a case involving more than $400 in counterfeit money found on the U of M campus. Parquet was dismissed from the squad August 4th, meaning the fate of this team is all the more contingent on the strength of Williams' left knee. As for Washington, he did receive a wrist-slap from the head coach, despite the arson charges being dropped. Said West in an August 5th press release, "LaVale Washington has been a distraction to the football team this summer and will be suspended for the first two football games."
In a skewed sense, the off-the-field indiscretions may be an indicator of this program truly having arrived as a challenger to the Mid-South's SEC behemoths. It's one thing to win a bowl game and have an All-America candidate on your roster, but to capture some national attention -- however unsightly -- in June? Unheard of in Tiger Nation, Football Division. Transgressions aside, there are some questions entering the 2004 campaign that have the U of M faithful desperate to tailgate. So as you're packing for Oxford this weekend, we'll offer some answers.
· Are expectations too high?
Heck no. Take a look at the Tiger schedule. Yes, the Rebels will be a formidable opening-week challenge (though David Cutcliffe's team will be helmed by a quarterback -- Micheal Spurlock -- who has thrown exactly eight passes in his career). But there's no Mississippi State in 2004, no Arkansas or Tennessee adding SEC hurdles to the grind toward C-USA play. On top of that, the two toughest conference games -- Louisville and Southern Miss -- are at home.
Injuries, of course, are the great variable when it comes to forecasting a football team's fortunes. And if Williams or Wimprine goes down, all bets are off. But if the offensive stars perform and the defense approximates its standard of 2003 -- when it led C-USA in total defense -- there's no reason not to expect nine or 10 wins from this squad. Another bowl appearance should be a given.
· Does last season's success mean anything this season?
The pat answer would be no. But turn to the inside back cover of this year's media guide and staring at you are no fewer than 30 seniors. From deep snapper Jared Bidne's smiling face to the pearly whites of fifth-year senior Wimprine, you have more experience in a class of Tiger football players than these parts have seen in years. And every last one of them enjoyed last year's nine-win campaign and the bowl victory in New Orleans. Think they aren't hungry for more?
In basketball, a freshman can impact a program directly off his high-school campus. (See Sean Banks.) In Division I football, though, a few years of weights, film, and spit-spraying hits can do wonders for a player's development. Twelve of those 30 seniors are projected starters on the preseason depth chart, including two offensive linemen (center Gene Frederic and right tackle David Davis), two defensive linemen (Albert Means and David McNair) and three defensive backs (Scott Vogel, Cameron Essex, and Tristan Thomas).
Having beaten Ole Miss last year, the leaders on this team will not be intimidated by Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Better yet, they shouldn't get rattled when (not if) adversity presents itself. West says experience is the team's most valuable asset. "Outside of our linebackers," he notes, "every other position is filled by people who have played."
· Can Danny Wimprine get better?
Believe it or not, yes. With every yard gained, Wimprine will establish a new school passing record. (He enters the season with 7,323.) Same goes for completions (583) and touchdowns (59). But look at a pair of last season's biggest conference tests. Wimprine was 16 for 35 and threw three interceptions in the loss at Southern Miss. At home against Cincinnati in late November, Wimprine was eight for 26, with another three picks. (The Tigers still managed a victory.) Wimprine remembers those games better than you do, and they motivate him like no record he's ever broken. "My biggest challenge this season," he says, "is to limit my mistakes."
Enjoy the last season with number 18 on the field. (It should be the last season that number is ever on the field.) Wimprine will leave behind more than records. Because of what he's accomplished at the U of M, other blue-chip high-school quarterbacks may begin to consider Memphis as a place where they can gain the national spotlight.
· Is DeAngelo Williams a
Heisman Trophy candidate?
No. And it doesn't matter, not a whit. (Remind yourself: Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Rashaan Salaam, and Danny Wuerffel have Heismans. Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Marshall Faulk, and Peyton Manning do not.) Williams is doing to the rushing section of the Tiger record book what Wimprine has done to the passing section. With only 523 yards, he'll break Dave Casinelli's 41-year-old school record (2,636). And he'll have -- fingers crossed -- a senior season to pad the numbers (at which time, those Heisman voters just may remind themselves there's a team in Memphis).
The confluence of talent the Tigers enjoy with the two DW's is unprecedented for the school, and, like the most thriving symbiotic relationships, each will be that much better having the other in the same backfield. Williams even caught 35 passes last season, good for third on the team.
Need some motivation, DeAngelo? In a column on SI.com earlier this month, Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel said 2004 may well be the "Year of the Running Back." He listed 10 running backs who represent the "cream of the crop" nationwide, along with nine who are "poised for a breakout." Your name wasn't on either list.
· Where is the 2004 squad's greatest strength?
Easy answer: defensive secondary. Say what you will about the last 20 years of Tiger football, this program churns out Grade-A defensive backs. Ken Irvin, Jerome Woods, Mike McKenzie, Idrees Bashir, Reggie Howard, and Michael Stone, just to name a few. This year's unit is up to the standard. Junior safety Wesley Smith was named all-conference last season after finishing second on the team with 98 tackles. Senior Scott Vogel -- a Memphis University School graduate -- was a third-team all-conference selection in 2003 and has 22 starts under his belt entering 2004. Add senior Cameron Essex and junior O.C. Collins to the mix and you have an experienced, hard-hitting quartet that will make big plays hard to come by for Tiger opponents. You have to like their chances in this weekend's matchup with what amounts to a rookie Ole Miss quarterback in Spurlock.
· Where's the Achilles heel?
Linebacker. You don't lose the likes of Will Hyden, Coot Terry, Greg Harper, and Derrick Ballard and not feel it in your defensive scheme. A pair of sophomores -- Quinton McCrary and Mike Snyder -- are expected to fill part of this void, along with junior-college transfer Carlton Baker. Junior Tim Goodwell has the most experience among returning linebackers, though he has yet to start a game.
"I've been impressed [with this group]," says West. "They are very fast. They're also very inexperienced. They've played a little more mature than they are, probably. I just hope they continue that through an entire season. We don't have a lot of depth. We have to play well up front and behind them, and I think we'll be fine. I think we're as talented as we were a year ago. We just have to play."
· Will the Liberty Bowl be packed all season?
Next question. Okay, wait, the answer is no. Last year, the Tigers set a Liberty Bowl record with an average attendance of 40,622, an increase of more than 11,000 from 2002. This means on your average Saturday afternoon with the Tigers in town, there were more than 20,000 empty seats in the Liberty Bowl. The average got a big boost from the Ole Miss game (51,914), but the most impressive turnout was the regular-season finale, when almost 48,000 fans showed up to see the Tigers play, yes, South Florida (alas, a 21-16 loss).
This year's home opponents -- Chattanooga, Houston, Tulane, Louisville, and Southern Miss -- aren't exactly going to stir the couch potatoes. Tickets will be sold, though, on the dynamism of Williams and Wimprine and (here we go again) the success of 2003. Here's hoping for good weather on the night of November 4th, when the Tigers and Cardinals will have ESPN's Thursday-night audience counting those empty seats.
· Is the schedule as weak as it appears?
Yes ... and no. Seven of the Tigers' 11 opponents are ranked 64th(!) in the country or worse by Sports Illustrated. And that doesn't even include Chattanooga, a Division I-AA foe. But if you like the passing game, the Liberty Bowl won't be a bad place to be this fall. A troika of star wideouts will be coming to test the Memphis secondary: Chattanooga's Alonzo Nix (90 receptions for 1,060 yards in 2003), Tulane's Roydell Williams (66 for 1,006), and Louisville's J.R. Russell (75 for 1,213). And another home opponent -- Houston -- will bring quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was last season's C-USA Freshman of the Year. Finally, you have Southern Miss wrapping up the home schedule November 12th on a Friday night. The Black-and-Blue game under the lights? Can't beat that.
· Can the Tigers crack the Top 25?
This is going to be tough. The strength-of-schedule element -- both for computers and voters with fingers -- is typically too large a factor for C-USA teams to overcome. The schools from the BCS conferences (Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac 10, Big East) have harder schedules, by default. You might recall TCU went 11-2 last season and wound up number 25 in the AP poll.
There are three must-wins for the Tigers to harbor hopes of a national ranking. They have to win the opener against Ole Miss, their only BCS-conference opponent. And they have to win the two nationally televised games against Louisville and Southern Miss. To solidify the ranking, of course, the U of M needs to lose no more than two games and win another bowl game. (For those keeping track, the last time Memphis finished a season in the Top 25 was 1969, when they went 8-2, and UPI ranked them 20th in the country.)
In their annual preseason forecast, the folks at Sports Illustrated don't stop at 25. They rank all 117 Division I-A programs. In this year's poll, the defending national champs from Southern Cal are at number one (ho-hum). At the bottom? Buffalo (ho-hum). But ranked 32nd in the country -- considerably higher than in any such poll in memory -- is the University of Memphis. And if you want a final anecdote for just how far the Tiger program has come, you need merely look one ranking below the U of M in that same copy of Sports Illustrated. At number 33, you'll find none other than the Alabama Crimson Tide.
"Our kids have been pretty good about playing one game at a time," says West. "When you get into trying to figure, okay, we're gonna win this one, win that one, that one'll be hard -- it just doesn't work that way. If you lose one, you can't jump off the bridge, and if you win one big-time, you can't get too high. You just have to go out and play your tail off every week and at the end of the year, sack 'em up and see how many we've got."
Sounds like a plan.