Fast forward to this Saturday, when Memphis will again open a season at home against I-AA Tennessee Tech and -- again -- have to avoid looking a week ahead to a nationally televised showdown with the Ole Miss Rebels (and their star quarterback, Eli Manning). The Tiger faithful may appear a little sleepy-eyed as they tailgate in the late-August heat. After all, this seasons opener wont make anyone forget recent curtain-raisers against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Miami. And while it affords the U of M an opportunity to get the kinks out before facing the Rebs, keep in mind last years squad put a Nebraska on Murray State (52-6), only to drop nine of their next eleven.
A few areas Tiger Nation will be watching as the 2003 season unfolds:
¥ D as in Defense . . . and Dunn. The 2002 Tigers gave up 362.8 yards per game and yielded an average of 27 points per contest (their most in four years). For any chance at the programs first .500 season since 1994 (and with it, precious bowl eligibility), these numbers are going to have to drop. The unit just may be in the right hands, as Joe Lee Dunn returns to Memphis after 12 years in the SEC (most recently at Mississippi State). Unlike Wests awkward season under Rip Scherer in 2000, this defensive coordinator doesnt bring any head-coaching aspirations to the Tiger sideline. Dunn knows his job, and understands the need for improvement. An experienced group of linebackers -- Shaka Hill, Greg Harper, and Coot Terry have earned a combined 8 letters -- should be complemented by improved play on the corners (emerging star O.C. Collins and juco transfer Lee Hayes will be worth watching). The squads best athlete may well be senior Derrick Ballard, who has moved from outside linebacker to strong safety. If Dunns D can shave a touchdown off that 2002 scoring average, this could be a fun season.
¥ D as in . . . DeAngelo. Memphis will suit up a record-breaking quarterback, but I know where my eyes will be when the Tigers have the ball. Sophomore DeAngelo Williams may be undersized by NFL standards (only 175 pounds), but his quickness and breakaway skill could be an explosive asset in Conference USA. Having shared tailback duties with Dante Brown last season, Williams must rise to a leadership position, even as a sophomore. Mark this down: the more Williams is on the field, the better the Tigers chances. If the U of M is forced into comeback (read: passing) mode early, things could get ugly. If Williams gets 200 carries this fall, the Tigers will be a .500 team.
¥ D as in . . . Danny. Junior quarterback Danny Wimprine will be going places no Memphis passer has ever gone before. With 33 pass attempts, 5 completions, and 163 yards, Wimprine will own every major passing record in the U of M book, and hell have almost two seasons to build on the standards. Before hes through, hell probably double the second-most touchdown passes in school history (31 by Steve Matthews). As impressive as the numbers are, we still have to see Wimprine add to the most impressive quarterback statistic of them all: wins.
¥ D as in . . . dependable? Footballs a simple game to analyze, really. If your team gets solid line play, it wins. If it cant push the other team back, it doesnt win. Memphis must replace four members of its offensive line. On the surface this may seem to be an Achilles heel of sorts, but remember that last years line pushed the squad to all of three wins. Junior guard Andrew Handy (63, 285) started nine games in 2002 and will be the leader of this green quintet. All five juniors, the line averages 277 pounds per man, relatively light by Division I-A standards. They could make the difference between a winning and losing season.
By the way, those 62 Tigers? They lost to Ole Miss, but proceeded to win their next seven games (outscoring their opponents 242-40) to finish 8-1 and ranked 17th in the country. Maybe the U of M schedule-makers know something we dont.