• Austin Peay is a big game.
The Governors are an FCS program that went 0-12 last season. They are a team Memphis must and should beat. But consider them a tune-up for UCLA and you’re misjudging the start to year three of the Justin Fuente era at the U of M. The Tiger program has not reached a point where any opponent can be considered inferior, a walkover, a “gimme.” Simply recall the last two games of the 2013 season, when many considered the Tigers favored to beat a pair of American Athletic Conference bottom feeders. Temple and UConn won those two games by a combined 55 points. It’s been ten years — a decade — since Memphis won its opening game. (DeAngelo Williams was a junior when the Tigers beat Ole Miss in Oxford to start the 2004 season.) Players and coaches these days like to emphasize the need to “take care of business” when hosting an underdog. Forget what comes next week. The Liberty Bowl hosts a big game this Saturday.
• Watch the players not wearing number 12.
When I recently asked Fuente about the development of sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch, he said something simple but illuminating: “I’m just as interested in the other 10 around him playing better, to help him out. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.” All eyes tend to follow the quarterback when an offense takes the field. And with 12 starts already under his belt, Lynch knows the spotlight he’s taken, and the expectations — from his coaches and Tiger fans — that come with the position. But Lynch’s performance this season will reflect the continued development of those “around him” on the Tiger offense. A veteran receiving corps has to stretch the field more than it was able to a year ago. Brandon Hayes and Doroland Dorceus have to create some second-and-short scenarios that tend to expose a defense. And then there’s the offensive line. Senior Al Bond is entrenched (likely at right tackle), but who plays the other four positions remains in question, the hope being depth has finally made starting slots hard to win for a Memphis blocker. Not since 2008 (Brandon Pearce) have the Tigers suited up a first-team all-conference selection on its offensive line. Memphis needs a star in the trenches.
• A packed house?
Attendance at the Liberty Bowl has always been a measuring stick for the Tiger program. (What exactly it measures remains debatable.) The cavernous (60,000-plus) stadium will never be full for a Memphis game unless an SEC foe is in town. So we’re left to determine how many empty seats make a positive indicator. Just over 39,000 fans came out to watch Fuente’s debut in 2012 (a loss to UT-Martin). Last year, 44,237 showed up to see the Tigers lose to Duke. The Tigers wouldn’t see a crowd of 40,000 the rest of the season (six more home games). Needless to say, 40,000 fans this Saturday would be considered a booming start to the season. It’s still (barely) August, sure to be hot. But the only SEC team with local ties playing at the same time will be Mississippi State. If you’re a Memphis football fan, the Liberty Bowl will be the place to be Saturday night. Here’s hoping the action on the field is a better story than the number of empty seats.
And a fourth thought (just this week). The Tiger schedule has two very distinct halves, the first arduous, the second stuffed with teams forecast to finish near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference. And Memphis will not play consecutive home games until the final two contests on the schedule. Trends will be hard to read (or forecast) beyond the most famous cliché in sports: “One game at a time.” That said, I do indeed believe this is the year Tiger fans have been waiting for. The U of M may be 2-4 after the Houston game (October 11th), but if key players can avoid major injury, the Tigers will finish strong and gain bowl eligibility (6-6) in their season finale against UConn (November 29th).
Be sure and check out the Flyer’s annual Tiger football preview in this week’s print edition, on streets Wednesday.