• Big Game
It’s not Ole Miss or Mississippi State, but the Tigers’ opener against Duke is the first game we can truly call “big” since coach Justin Fuente arrived. The Tigers are not supposed to win. The Blue Devils cruised in Durham last year (38-14) and tuned up nicely last week with a 45-0 thrashing of North Carolina Central. Memphis will suit up for the first time Saturday and against the only power-conference team on its schedule. Duke’s the only team from a power conference the Tigers will play in either of Fuente’s first two seasons.
In the 16 seasons since Memphis upset Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers have exactly two victories over power-conference teams . . . both Ole Miss (in 2003 and 2004). Among ACC foes, Duke isn’t Florida State, Clemson, or Georgia Tech. But they are ACC. With a playmaker like Jamison Crowder in the fold (113 yards on five punt returns last week), the Blue Devils come to town with some bite. It will be interesting to see if the Tiger faithful top last year’s opening crowd (the UT-Martin game) of 39,076. I’m guessing they will. This is a big game.
• Pay attention to pace.
A Tiger practice under Justin Fuente is built on frenetic rhythm. And it’s loud. A siren blares every five minutes, scattering football players at certain intervals from one station to another. Tiger players sprint from station to station, and they are led by assistant coaches and graduate assistants . . . and Justin Fuente. Last Wednesday, Fuente himself led a ball-carrying drill, screaming to those with pigskin in hand, “The most important thing we’ll do . . . take care of the ball!” The players dropped to the ground. No one fumbled.
Can the pace of a practice be translated to game day? This depends largely on the efficiency of the Tiger offense, of course. It’s easy to control the pace of a football game when chunks of yardage are being gained one snap after another. But whether or not freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch can rhythmically move the Tigers toward the end zone, I’m convinced Lynch and friends have been tasked with playing fast football. Not rushed football, which only leads to mistakes and turnovers. But fast football: to the line of scrimmage, play called . . . snap! A defense’s worst enemy is fatigue. Let’s see if the controlled frenzy that is a Tiger practice helps this year’s team win a game or two.
• Get your tickets!
I genuinely like the tickets-for-graduates program Tiger athletic director Tom Bowen has started: a pair of season tickets to the most recent class of U of M graduates. What a great way to engage those who should be the most important segment of the Tiger fan base. The more students and alumni cheering at a football stadium on Saturday afternoon, the stronger that football program will be.
But the program is also a statement on how large the Liberty Bowl (still) is, and how many more tickets there are to be sold, even with the positive buzz Fuente has delivered. The idea of such an outreach program at, say, Alabama is laughable. Here’s some amateur math to consider: $25 ticket (that’s a low figure) . . . two tickets per graduate . . . 5,000 graduates . . . six games = $1.5 million. The reigning national champs would essentially be giving away $1.5 million in value if they adopted the program Memphis graduates can now enjoy. Chump change in Tuscaloosa, perhaps, but the kind of revenue figure that would make a difference at the U of M.
Here’s hoping the day comes when demand for Tiger football tickets eliminates the need for donor programs. Until then, Tiger graduates, mark six (or seven) fall Saturdays on your calendars.