BOWLING FOR MEMORIES
Theres an odd parallel between Tuesday nights New Orleans Bowl and the last postseason affair that involved the University of Memphis. The Tigers beat San Jose State, 28-9, on December 18, 1971, in the Pasadena Bowl. Exactly two weeks later, on the very same field, Stanford upset Michigan in the Rose Bowl to help clinch the national championship for Nebraska (who whipped Alabama in the Orange Bowl).
When the U of M and North Texas get it on in the Big Easy, the game will again serve as a tune-up for the main event, as it were. Come January 4th -- 19 days after the New Orleans Bowl -- the Sugar Bowl will be played in the very same Superdome . . . and will decide the national championship. (Though USC will have a say in the matter if they can win the Rose Bowl.) If youve gotta be an opening act, why not open for the Stones, right?
Thats where the similarities end, however, between the 2003 Memphis Tigers and their brethren of 1971. Coach Billy Murphys last Tiger squad entered its bowl game with a less than stellar record of 4-6 (they were invited to Pasadena on the virtue of their 3-1 record in Missouri Valley Conference play). Tommy Wests current model finished 8-4 (5-3 in Conference USA).
The 71 Tigers never enjoyed so much as a three-game winning streak, and their biggest win of the season was a 47-8 drubbing of, yes, North Texas State. The 03 Tigers reeled off a five-game winning streak (the programs longest in 11 years) and chalked up big wins over Ole Miss, Louisville, and Cincinnati (three schools that had won at least their last three contests against the U of M).
Entering their bowl game, the 1971 Tigers averaged just under 23 points per game and were quarterbacked by John Robinson, who passed for 496 yards . . . the entire season. The Tigers youll see Tuesday night have averaged 30 points per game and will be quarterbacked by junior Danny Wimprine, who passed for 398 yards . . . in the Mississippi State game (and 2,920 for the season).
Some perspective is important as Tiger Nation celebrates its first bowl game since Bill Waltons sophomore season at UCLA. No fewer £than 26 bowl games will be played between the Superdomes first Tuesday night and the Sugar Bowl January 4th. Which means almost half the schools in Division I-A are bowl-bound. Its a far cry from the days of Rose/Cotton/Sugar/Orange . . . or nothing. And honestly, unless youre playing in January, the bowl event is more a reward to the players and fans than it is a commentary on the relative strength of a teams season.
With that said, lets get it on! There have been 354 Memphis Tiger football games since they last played in the postseason, so you can take your qualifiers, asterisks, and footnotes and serve them up as part of TOM IIs pregame meal. This is a big game for the U of M, against a high-scoring bunch (on an eight-game winning streak) that will embrace its national exposure (thanks to ESPN2) every bit as much as the Tigers. Champions of the Sun Belt Conference, North Texas boasts a 9-3 record, with two of those losses coming against Arkansas and, ahem, Oklahoma. A Tiger defense that has stood proud for three months now will have its claws full keeping things tight for Wimprine and company.
If theres any regret, it has to be that the country will be denied a performance from DeAngelo Williams. The Memphis tailback -- 1,430 yards rushing already in his rearview -- would be the star of the show before his first carry were it not for the knee injury he suffered in the Cincinnati game. No player on the field deserves this reward bowl more than number 20 in blue. Carry that torch with honor, Derron Parquet.
Considering the New Orleans Bowl will be a homecoming of sorts for Wimprine and Parquet (both Louisiana natives) and considering the Tigers have NEVER lost a bowl game (Memphis beat East Tennessee State in the 1956 Burley Bowl . . . huh?), the pick here seems natural. Memphis 34, North Texas 17.