• Beyond wins and losses, it’s hard to quantify the rebuilding progress of a college football program. However you view the second year of Justin Fuente’s master project, more people are viewing it with you. Tickets sold for the Tigers’ first three home games of 2012 looked like this: 39,076 . . . 27,113 . . . 17,831 (total of 84,020). And this year’s numbers: 44,237 . . . 36,279 . . . 30,274 (total of 110,790). Using the clearest gauge we have for community interest, Tiger football is up 31 percent from this point a year ago.
Better yet, there’s the “feel” of progress. Every game Memphis has played has been competitive, save their blowout victory over Arkansas State. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch seems like the football equivalent of a Triple-A prospect at AutoZone Park: glimpses of raw talent, with the best yet to come. The Tiger defense (third in the American) has shown strength from the line to the secondary. The program is still closing a gap, to be sure, but there’s reason to believe victories are on the way. After the loss to UCF last Saturday, Fuente was asked how he would handle such a crushing loss, and he responded with what amounts to a summary of his program’s growth: “When we got here, there were no crushing losses. They were just getting crushed.”
• Before every season, we examine a schedule and mark what we consider “winnable” games. Then, of course, the season starts and what we saw on paper is chewed up and regurgitated by actual football teams, actual players. A month into the season, four American opponents the Tigers have yet to play have combined for a record of 2-17. Memphis will host SMU (1-4) and Temple (0-5); they’ll travel to USF (1-4) and UConn (0-4). Throw in UT-Martin, and today’s paper tells us a strong second half of the season could yield as many as six Tiger wins . . . and bowl eligibility. The midweek game against Cincinnati (at the Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, October 30th) could prove to be a season tipping point. Much to follow in the coming weeks.
• Memphis and Houston should be bitter rivals. Tigers vs. Cougars (cat fight!). Grizzlies vs. Rockets (NBA fight!). FedEx vs. NASA (flight fight!). Need more? In 1997, the NFL’s Oilers left the Astrodome for the Liberty Bowl (insert snicker). Yet despite 17 years in Conference USA together — and now a partnership in the American — Memphis and Houston don’t seem to rile one another all that much. The Cougars lead the series 12-9 (7-5 since the schools joined C-USA in 1996) and have won the last three meetings, putting up more than 50 points in 2009 (at Houston ) and 2010 (at Memphis). This is a game every Memphis fan should have circled in red(!) on their schedules.
Saturday could get ugly. Coach Tony Levine’s staff has had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers. One of the last two undefeated teams in the American (along with Louisville), the Cougars have averaged 43.5 points per game and lead the league in total offense (534.0 yards per game). After their last game, quarterback John O’Korn and cornerback William Jackson were honored with the American’s offensive and defensive player of the week, respectively. The game will surely tilt on Houston’s running attack. If the Cougars approach their average of 226.5 yards per game, the Tigers will come home for SMU with a 1-4 record. If the Memphis defense can keep things closer to the 81.3 yards its last three opponents have averaged on the ground, we might see another game decided in the fourth quarter.