• Let’s stop measuring the strength of the Memphis program relative to its neighbors in the SEC. (Remember, the Tigers have gone 2-25 against NFL Lite since beating Tennessee in that “program-changing” upset . . . 17 years ago.) If we’re trying to establish where Memphis might go, how prominent the Tigers might become on the college football landscape, we need to look at this week’s opponent at the Liberty Bowl. George O’Leary’s UCF Knights are the gold standard. Said Memphis coach Justin Fuente at his Monday press conference, “They’re fundamentally sound and they play hard, smart and tough. You very rarely see them hurt themselves or see them make silly mistakes.”
O’Leary took over the program in 2004, only its ninth in Division I. And UCF stunk up the place (0-11) for exactly one season. In 2005 — playing in Conference USA for the first time, which helps — UCF went 8-5 and played in its first bowl game (a loss to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl). The Knights have since had three 10-win seasons, played in the C-USA championship game four times (winning twice), and played in four more bowl games (they’re 1-1 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl). This year they’ve already beaten Penn State and made South Carolina sweat considerably. With Louisville leaving the American next season, UCF will be the face of this new football conference. The Tigers’ annual meeting with this team is a new and valuable litmus test for a program seeking relevance.
• Among several promising sights in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas State two weeks ago, one stood out: the pass rush. Led by junior end Martin Ifedi (2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss), the Tigers tied a program record with seven sacks, all but grounding the Red Wolves’ passing game. Despite playing only three games, Memphis leads the American Athletic Conference with 13 sacks for the season (the rest of the league has played four games each). Compare this total with 29 in 12 games last season, and you have the kind of trend that could impact a won-lost record. Andre Arnold holds the program’s single-season record for sacks with 13 (in 2000). Ifedi (5.5 through three games) could reach that mark by Halloween.
• Entering the season, Fuente emphasized that this year’s team has the kind of depth that will allow the coaching staff to make choices when it comes to attacking an opponent. There are multiple weapons along the defensive line (five players were in on the seven sacks against ASU) and, after what we saw two weeks ago, there may be a threatening tandem of Tiger tailbacks. Senior Brandon Hayes is the top returning rusher (576 yards in 2012), so his 114 yards — and 6.3 average on 18 carries — was pleasant, but can’t be called a surprise. But freshman Marquis Warford? Who had the diminutive Texan (he stands 5’8”) averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries in his third college game? No way do these kind of numbers repeat themselves Saturday against UCF. But if the Tigers’ current version of Thunder & Lightning (my buddy Greg Gaston prefers to keep it local and call them “Hustle & Flow”) can find holes through a still-evolving Tiger offensive line, Memphis can control the clock to a degree, and limit the chances Knight quarterback Blake Bortles has to light up the scoreboard.