Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2014 at 8:57 AM

The Tiger football program is not exactly known for upsets. It’s been almost 18 years since Memphis last beat a ranked opponent. (Raise your hand if you remember the upset of 6th-ranked Tennessee on November 9, 1996.) Over the last quarter-century, Memphis has won exactly three games against Top-25 opposition. (They also beat 16th-ranked USC in 1991 and 23rd-ranked Mississippi State to open the 1993 season.) To be fair, the Tigers have gone entire seasons — most recently 2012 — without playing a ranked team. But what kind of chance do the Tigers have Saturday night in the Rose Bowl against 11th-ranked UCLA? Most betting lines have the Bruins favored by three touchdowns. The Tigers have won only two road games since Justin Fuente became head coach, and only three road games — total — since the start of the 2009 season. All of which, if you ask me, makes a delightful setting for an upset around midnight central time Saturday night. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley may win the Heisman Trophy and the Bruins may claim L.A. as their own with the recent turnover at Southern Cal. But the Tigers held serve (mightily) in their opener against Austin Peay, and have been looking forward to this trip an entire off-season. I’d be foolish to pick the Tigers to win, but I don’t think Paxton Lynch, Charles Harris and friends will be intimidated by the ranking their foe brings this weekend.

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My favorite stat from the Austin Peay game was the average yards per play allowed by the Tiger defense: 2.9. That’s an extraordinary number, and is certainly a reflection of the Tigers’ inferior opponent. But it’s a number worth watching as the U of M season — particularly the arduous first half — unfolds. I’m convinced the Tiger defense will win or lose games this season (by establishing how much a still-young offense must produce). Last season, the Tigers allowed 5.2 yards per play, down from 5.4 in 2012 and 6.6 the last year under coach Larry Porter. The closer Memphis can get to 4.0 — consider the figure a GPA for a college football team’s defense — the closer the Tigers will be to legitimate bowl contention. (Michigan State led the country last season, allowing 4.04 yards per play. Next was Florida State at 4.09.)

• The only white-knuckle moment for Tiger fans Saturday night came midway through the third quarter when senior defensive end Martin Ifedi was helped off the field, having apparently injured an ankle. (The Tiger staff and administration remain hush-hush on the severity of the injury, or whether or not Ifedi will play against UCLA.) Memphis was leading 49-0 at the time, which led to some easy second-guessing on the wisdom of having a star like Ifedi on the field.

I have no problem with Ifedi playing, regardless of the score. He’s a football player, a defensive lineman no less. Trying to measure the probability of a lineman injuring himself on any snap of the football is like trying to dodge raindrops in a late-summer Mid-South thunderstorm. The Austin Peay game was the 37th of Ifedi’s college career (he has not missed a game for the Tigers). Needless to say, he’s been on the field when the score was the inverse of the one Memphis fans relished last Saturday. He’s earned the right to be on the field with his team comfortably ahead.

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