The University of Memphis football team is on its way to the Sunshine State, to take on the South Florida Bulls in the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl on December 20th. (With 34 of these postseason extravaganzas, you had to know we'd run out of clever titles. The Tulip Bowl?)
While it's the fifth bowl game in six seasons for Coach Tommy West's Tigers, this will be the first contest in which the U of M is matched up with a so-called BCS team, a program belonging to one of the six conferences that qualify for the mythical BCS national championship. But Memphis fans should pause before posting a tiger-striped "mission accomplished" banner.
To begin with, the University of South Florida plays in the Big East conference, the weak sister among the six power conferences (behind the SEC, Big 12, Pac 10, Big 10, and even the ACC). For some perspective, consider the Big East champion Cincinnati Bearcats (also on their way to Florida to face Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl): This is a team that went 11-2 but lost to mighty Oklahoma, 52-26, and to not-so-mighty Connecticut (yes, they play football), 40-16. (For what it's worth, Cincinnati beat USF, 24-10.)
As recently as 2004, the Bearcats were members of Conference USA. If I were a fan of the 12-0 Boise State Broncos (on their way to the less-than-prestigious Poinsettia Bowl, with a payoff of $750,000), I'd have a serious gripe with the Big East's automatic pass into the BCS five-bowl party. Cincinnati's trip to the Orange Bowl will earn the program a cool $17 million.
That, alas, is but a long-winded way of explaining the simple notion that the Big East is not that far removed from the level of competition Memphis is familiar with in C-USA. USF spent the 2004 season in C-USA before joining the Bearcats in the Big East. Less than 20 years old as a program, the Bulls have grown competitive in a hurry. (It never hurts to have a campus in talent-rich Florida.) This will be the team's fourth straight postseason appearance, though the Bulls are hardly charging toward St. Pete, having lost four of their last five games.
Looking at common opponents, USF beat UCF (a team that beat Memphis at the Liberty Bowl) and lost to Louisville (another team that beat the Tigers at home). They led the Big East in total offense and finished second in the league in total defense (a unit that ranked 13th in the country).
Perhaps most worrisome for Tiger fans is the fact that this game will essentially be on home turf for the Bulls. A packed Tropicana Field, however, will be an improvement on the thousands of empty seats at the New Orleans Superdome when the Tigers played there in 2003 and 2007. And heck, folks, it's a bowl game, BCS connection be damned. Ask Tennessee and Arkansas fans how much they'd mind playing a road game this time of year.
• With six catches in his San Francisco 49ers' victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, Isaac Bruce now has 987 in his long and illustrious NFL career. Which means that, barring injury, Bruce should finish the 2008 season as the fifth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes (following the likes of Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, and Marvin Harrison). Among this quintet, only Rice, Harrison, and Bruce have won a Super Bowl.
Though you'd never know it by visiting the Liberty Bowl, Bruce is one of four former Tiger football players to have his jersey number (83) honored. In two seasons for Memphis, Bruce caught 113 passes (most of them thrown by Steve Matthews) and compiled 1,586 receiving yards, still seventh in school history. Thirteen more catches, and he'll punch his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And consider the irony there: A Memphis football player will reach his sport's Hall of Fame before any Memphis basketball player reaches the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.