I dread this weekend's football game between the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee. Just as I've dreaded the contest ever since August 11, 1996, the day my wife -- on her birthday, no less -- graduated from the U of M. I'm the son of UT alumni and was born in Fort Sanders Hospital on the Tennessee campus. Loyalty to the Big Orange is wrapped around the trunk of my family tree. On the other hand, I make my living in the Bluff City, and go home every day to the prettiest University of Memphis alum in town. So, you ask, who will win this Saturday? My answer: no one in the Murtaugh family circle.
To begin with, it's time Memphis did something to build on its epic upset of November 9, 1996. Almost 10 years and four losses to UT later, the Tiger program can no longer boast of whipping a Volunteer team ranked 6th in the country and quarterbacked by Peyton Manning without the follow-up inquiry, "But what have you done lately?" The U of M has come close, falling by a single point to the defending national champs in Knoxville in 1999, losing by two on a rainy day in 2000 with Scott Scherer handling the quarterback duties, then coming up four points shy a year ago with DeAngelo Williams on the Neyland Stadium sidelines. (Tiger Nation chooses to ignore the 49-28 drubbing in 2001.) However close the scores may have been, the ledger currently shows Memphis with a record of 1-19 against their cross-state rivals.
As for the Vols, they have as much to prove at the Liberty Bowl about their identity as do the Tigers. Having enjoyed seven 10-win seasons from 1995 through 2004, UT hit a wall last year, suffering its first losing season since 1988. Even worse, Tennessee seems to have lost its right to swagger with SEC titans like Florida, LSU, Georgia, and (fates be damned) Alabama. Power programs simply don't have four-game losing streaks, as did Tennessee last fall. UT seemed to have regained its mojo with a season-opening upset of Cal (ever so briefly a member of the Top 10). But then came a squeaker over Air Force and a narrow defeat at home to Florida, a team that outplayed the Vols more than the 21-20 final score might indicate.
The game has taken on added drama with the sudden dismissal of Memphis defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. While the timing was odd -- three games into the season, after a loss in which his quarterback threw five interceptions, Tommy West fires the DEFENSIVE boss? -- Dunn had run out of supporters. Can West -- assuming the chores left behind by Dunn -- channel the vibe that saw the 2000 Tiger defense (under coordinator Tommy West) rank fifth nationally? Unlikely, with so many new faces in uniform. But what a litmus test West's alma mater will prove to be this Saturday.
The biggest anomaly of this showdown is the fact that, for the first time in 21 meetings, it's the Memphis program that has more to lose with a defeat. Should Tennessee fall, the calls for coach Phil Fulmer's head will get a little louder. But it's a nonconference game, and with Georgia, Alabama, and LSU still on the schedule, the Volunteers can easily salvage the season with a major upset or two. But the Tigers? Should they lose to Tennessee -- again -- in front of a national audience (ESPN will broadcast the game), they'll find themselves 1-3, traveling to what has been a seasonal Waterloo for the program (UAB) the very next Saturday, and with nary a bye week to lick any orange-tinted wounds. Should the U of M limp home on October 14th to play Arkansas State with a 1-4 record, West and the Tiger brass will be able to measure the program's post-DeAngelo relevance by the number of empty seats at the Liberty Bowl. It's that big a game for Memphis.
As for your faithful scribe, I'll be closeting all my orange shirts and all my blue caps, donning my credential and shuffling up to the Liberty Bowl press box, brainstorming how to handle the final score and the ensuing celebration on one side of the field or the other. Objectivity, they stress in Sportswriting 101. No cheering in the press box. Report the game, not your feelings about the game. But with thoughts of my mom, my dad, and my wife running through my head at kickoff, kissing my sister -- a Stanford grad, mind you -- has never looked so good.