In honor of the jersey number every University of Memphis football fan -- and every opponent, for that matter -- will be watching this fall, here are 20 points of interest as the Tigers prepare to kick off the 2005 season.
1 Keep your eye on the record-breaking All-America candidate. Yeah, the kicker.
The U of M has suited up some talented placekickers in recent history. Joe Allison was a first-team All-America in 1992 and received the very first Lou Groza Award. Ryan White was named to Playboy's preseason All-America team in 2000 and once kicked five field goals in a single game. But Allison, White, and every other Tiger kicker now take a back seat to Stephen Gostkowski. Entering his senior season, Gostkowski is already the school's alltime leading scorer (268 points) and needs just four field goals to break Allison's career record of 51. Ironically, Gostkowski may be in a race with his poster-boy teammate, DeAngelo Williams (248 career points), for a scoring mark that may not be broken for a generation or two.
2 Who says defense wins championships?
During Tommy West's one season as defensive coordinator under Rip Scherer (2000), his Tiger defense gave up only 182 points for the season (16.5 per game). They went 4-7. Last year, Memphis gave up more than twice as many points (375, or 31.2 per game). They went 8-4 and finished the season in a bowl game. Scary to think where the 2005 Tigers might go if the defense could lower last year's average by about 10 points.
3 Tommy West is becoming "the face" of Memphis football.
Longtime Tiger faithful will scoff at this, citing Billy Murphy and his 91 wins over 14 seasons on the Memphis sidelines. And credit is due Murphy, for he coached in an era when there weren't 28 bowl games, cable television, and the Internet to splash a head coach's face on the consciousness of football fans near and far. Nonetheless, West has seized command of what had been a moribund, even neglected program. Over the past two seasons, behind the efforts of the now-departed Danny Wimprine and Williams, West made the University of Memphis at least a peripheral threat to the Mid-South's SEC behemoths. (Can you imagine during, say, the Chuck Stobart era an Ole Miss coach talking about "building a fence" around Memphis for recruiting purposes?) Best of all, West has acted since day one like this is precisely where he wants to be. Give him another decade and a few more bowl appearances, and Tommy West will be to the U of M what Woody Hayes is to Ohio State.
4 Who's the next Danny?
Okay, young Tiger quarterbacks, here's your mission should you accept it. Fill the shoes of the recently graduated Wimprine, the first Tiger passer in history to accumulate 10,000 yards, a guy who threw 50 more touchdown passes than the next most prolific Memphis signal caller, a leader who played in as many bowl games (two) as the program had seen over its first 90 years.
West has chosen junior Patrick Byrne to take the torch from Wimprine, backed up by a pair of freshmen in whom the coach has shown some confidence (Will Hudgens and Billy Barefield). Byrne has lettered the last two seasons but primarily as a kicker. (He handled kickoff duty, with Gostkowski focusing on field goals and PATs.) Need some passing stats? Byrne completed 12 of 17 throws in the spring Blue-Gray intrasquad game and was named co-MVP. I asked Williams about his thoughts on the quarterback transition, and his answer says a lot about how "critical" this element may be to the Tigers' fortunes this season. "As long as he can hand me the ball," deadpanned Williams, "I think we'll be fine."
5 Eleven -- maybe 12 -- circles on the calendar.
Add up the 2004 records of the Tigers' opponents and you get 53 wins and 75 losses. Hardly the kind of gauntlet a BCS power must face on its way to New Year's Day. But West would be the first say that you have to outscore your opponent, whether it's Louisville or Tulsa. There will be some hot spots on this schedule, starting with Ole Miss on Labor Day and cresting during a three-week stretch in November with games against UAB, Tennessee, and Southern Miss. With health and some good fortune, a nine-win regular season is a possibility.
6 About that 12th circle.
For the first time, Conference USA will hold a championship game, to be played between the conference's East and West division champs on December 3rd. (The Tigers are in the East division, along with Southern Miss, UAB, East Carolina, UCF, and Marshall.) If you've ever watched the Big 12 or SEC championship games, you know these tilts are as close as the convoluted world of college football comes to "winner-take-all." The Tiger coaching staff will have this game on their minds just as much as any bowl aspirations.
7 If you visit the Liberty Bowl, expect a Tiger bite.
Don't look now, but Memphis is 9-3 at home over the last two seasons. And one of those losses -- the 56-49 shootout with Louisville last season -- was one of the 10 greatest games ever played at the Liberty Bowl. Having averaged more than 40,000 in home attendance two straight years (a first for the program), the U of M is building the kind of home-field advantage expected of college football's elite. With six games on home turf this fall, this is an advantage the Tigers must retain.
8 Where did the grass stains go?
Memphis will play its first season on FieldTurf, the latest in artificial-surface technology, a "rug" already used by several NFL teams. It's a mixture of fake grass, sand, and rubber. And it will not give when certain ball carriers utilize their cutting ability to make defenders do that ballet-in-shoulder-pads called "grasping at air." Asked if he had any concerns about playing on artificial turf his senior year, Williams said, "No. This actually fits my style." He wasn't smiling. Neither will opposing linebackers when facing Williams in the open field.
9 A secondary star
Secondary, as in defensive backfield. Wesley Smith enters his junior season having already twice been named first-team All-Conference USA. He is rightfully on the Jim Thorpe Trophy watch list (an honor that goes to the country's finest defensive back). A native of Oxford, Mississippi (what was that about fences?), Smith nursed a shoulder injury in spring practice, and his health will be critical to a defensive unit he will anchor from 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Smith joins a lineage of great Tiger defensive backs that includes Jerome Woods, Ken Irvin, Idrees Bashir, Mike McKenzie, and Reggie Howard. If Tennessee can call itself Wide Receiver U, when does Memphis become DBU?
10 Labor Day turf war.
Has there been a bigger opening game in Tiger history? Ole Miss and their first-year coach, Ed Orgeron, will be trying to establish -- for a national audience watching on ESPN -- which school is the Mid-South's preeminent football institution. Memphis will raise the curtain on its first legitimate Heisman Trophy campaign, all the while trying to beat the Rebels for the third straight time (last accomplished in 1976). Oh yeah, and this will be the first Memphis game not started by one Danny Wimprine since 2001.
11 DeAngelo's five favorite players.
Perhaps the most charming element of the DeAngelo Williams phenomenon has been the star's insistence on greeting the postgame media contingent with at least one of the giant men who open holes for him week after week. The 2005 U of M offensive line will feature precisely one player -- junior center Blake Butler -- who started last season. Left guard Andrew Handy (a two-year starter) returns after sitting out 2004 with an ankle injury. The three rookies on the line -- right tackle Abraham Holloway, right guard Andy Smith, and left tackle Willie Henderson -- average 314 pounds. It's a line built for the running game. Not to mention some face time on the local news.
12 Slay that dragon!
Considering the UAB program has existed for all of 14 seasons (and only nine in Division I-A), the Blazers' recent dominance in their series with Memphis is perplexing. The Tigers have dropped their last five meetings with UAB and only last season scored as many as 20 points (falling 35-28 in Birmingham). Last season's defeat was especially disheartening, as it prevented the Tigers' first 4-0 start since 1961. (Memphis would have been 6-0 entering the Cincinnati game in late October.) Every football program has benchmarks. You can be certain Tommy West considers beating UAB primary among his. UAB plays at the Liberty Bowl on November 1st, a Tuesday-night game to be televised on ESPN2.
13 When DeAngelo's not running the ball ...
No, don't head for the hot dog stand. The Tigers have a solid receiving corps, led by senior Maurice Avery, who has quietly climbed into the Memphis top 10 for career receptions (87) and receiving yards (1,177). Byrne will also be targeting juniors Ryan Scott (15 catches for a 21-yard average in 2004) and Mario Pratcher. Then there's Taz Knockum, already a member of the C-USA All-Name Team (though it seems he's a receiver with a linebacker's tag).
14 Magic number: 8
Not since the peak of the Billy Murphy years (1960-63) has Memphis won as many as eight games in three consecutive years. With six home games this season, such an achievement should be expected.
15 New conference neighbors.
Spinning positive in basketball terms on the revamped C-USA is going to be a chore. But when the likes of Louisville and South Florida are replaced by old Southwest Conference stalwarts like SMU and Rice, the football conference honestly doesn't suffer. Granted, SMU has its bruises, and Rice will be most valuable for what it does to the league's academic rating. But Texas football being Texas football (and let's not forget UTEP), C-USA is a step higher on the pigskin charts.
16 A West by any other name ...
Marcus West's value to the Tiger defense this season can't be overstated. Considering his partners on the line may well be Ryan Williams (a redshirt freshman) and Rubio Phillips (nary a career start), West will be critical, particularly for the Tigers' defense against the run. A second-team all-conference pick in 2004 when he led Memphis with six sacks, West must occupy opposing linemen in order for the speedy Tiger linebackers to fill gaps and make plays. Furthermore, whatever attention West attracts from opposing lines will ease the growing pains for his linemates.
17 November 12th is worth highlighting.
Doesn't November 9, 1996, seem like a long time ago? Memphis and Tennessee have played three times since Chris Powers caught that Orange-squeezing pass to beat Peyton Manning and friends. The U of M lost by a single point in Knoxville in 1999, by two at home a year later, then got buried in Knoxville in '01. Williams was a senior at Wynne High School in Arkansas the last time these two met, so it should be an interesting introduction when 100,000 orange-clad fans fill Neyland Stadium to make his acquaintance. If Williams is still in the running for the Heisman as Thanksgiving nears, this is the game where he can win it.
18 The black-and-gold standard.
Louisville won the C-USA championship last season, but year-in, year-out, it's Coach Jeff Bower's Southern Miss Golden Eagles that set the pace for this conference. USM has had 11 consecutive winning seasons under Bower and has won four C-USA titles since 1996. Memphis won the Black-and-Blue game last year for only the second time since 1994. (Williams' 75-yard touchdown scamper to clinch the victory was the Tigers' single biggest play of the year.) The U of M will travel to Hattiesburg -- where they haven't won in 21 years -- the week after facing Tennessee.
19 Tune in to the O.C.
Smith and West are the defense's primary all-star candidates, but let's not overlook senior cornerback O.C. Collins. A rare four-year starter, Collins has compiled 191 tackles and six interceptions since his arrival in 2002. He'll be the only senior in the Tigers' secondary.
20 The last time you'll see this number on a Tiger's back.
What more can be said to hype a player who has his own customized race car, miniature and full-size? DeAngelo Williams may win the Heisman Trophy, though he probably won't. (Need some motivation, D? In ranking the top 10 Heisman hopefuls, Sports Illustrated didn't so much as consider you a dark horse.) He may rush for 2,000 yards this season. Again, he probably won't. What he will do is add to his career total of 4,062 yards and 41 touchdowns, already school records, to the point where the "Greatest Tiger Ever" conversations skip to second place on the list. Better yet, he'll exemplify student-athlete, playing his fourth season when he could easily be playing in the NFL. And he'll personify what Tiger football can be for every 10-year-old pigskin dreamer in the Mid-South.
I had a chance, last July, to walk on stage at The Orpheum with Williams. (He was part of a backstage cover shoot for Memphis magazine.) There wasn't a single person in the theater, other than staffers making arrangements for the next show. Williams looked way up to the ornate ceiling of the Bluff City's most famous entertainment hall, shook his head slightly, and said, "I've never been here before." If there could be a single statement from the collective voice of all those Tiger fans to have thrilled at Williams' play in Memphis, it would probably be just that. We've never been here before.