The University of Memphis has fielded a football team for 105 years, much longer than the school has been called the University of Memphis. Coach Clyde Wilson oversaw a 1-2-1 season in 1912, the Tigers’ lone win coming against Bolton Agricultural College. You can raise a compelling barstool debate with the following question: Would the 1912 Tigers beat Larry Porter’s 2010 outfit? (The latter went 1-11 and was outscored 478-173.)
Things have gotten much better for the U of M on the gridiron. This Saturday in Orlando, the Tigers will play the biggest, most significant game in the history of the program when they face UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game. It’s big for what it represents on its own: the first time Memphis has played in a game structured to determine a conference champion. But it’s monumental for this long-suffering program for what would come with a Tiger win.
There are no fewer than 40 bowl games in college football. The sport’s postseason now includes teams with losing records playing in heavily sponsored events on neutral fields, each of these games televised nationally. (That TV programming, it should be understood, is why the games exist. Live sports provide the only stage where TV commercials still reach a full audience and, my god, the commercial breaks in a football game . . .) But there are precisely seven bowl games that still matter: the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (played here in Memphis since 1965) and what’s now called the New Year’s Six (the Rose Bowl, Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta, and Peach). Two of the New Year’s Six bowls make up the relatively new national semifinals, with this season’s semis being played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena California, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Here’s the kicker: If Memphis beats the Knights this Saturday, the Tigers will earn the lone “Group of Five” berth in the New Year’s Six and play in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. The odds of landing such a spot are tremendously long. Teams from the so-called Power Five leagues – the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 — fill 11 of the 12 New Year’s Six slots (and are virtually assured of the four national semifinal berths). This leaves 62 teams from the likes of the Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, and yes, the AAC vying for a single, solitary chance to play on college football’s (almost) biggest platform. The 16th-ranked Memphis Tigers will earn that single, solitary slot if they can win their 11th game (and eighth straight) this Saturday.
The 2017 Memphis Tigers are already an historic team. Senior Anthony Miller has done to the program’s receiving records what DeAngelo Williams once did to the rushing marks. Sophomore Tony Pollard has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns (and six in two seasons) after no Memphis player returned as many as two for a century-plus. Only two other Memphis teams — in 1938 and 2014 — have won 10 games in a season. No Tiger team has played a game in December ranked among the country’s top 20 teams. Ever. But there’s more to be gained.
UCF is one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Knight quarterback McKenzie Milton is one of the few men in the sport who can sling it with Tiger QB Riley Ferguson. The Tigers average 47 points per game (second in the country) and are six points from breaking the single-season mark of 522 (set in 2015), but UCF averages 48.2 points per game. Saturday’s showdown could damage the scoreboard at Spectrum Stadium.
A colleague recently suggested that the Tigers reaching the Peach Bowl would be better than the Memphis basketball team making the Final Four. And this is worthy of an actual barstool debate. College football now has it’s own “final four,” but a program like Memphis — not “Power Five,” remember — is all but excluded from consideration. So the holy grail of postseason events for Memphis football players is, indeed, a New Year’s Six bowl game. They literally (at least for now) don’t get any bigger.
“You embrace the emotion,” said a pleased-but-not-satisfied Memphis coach Mike Norvell after last Saturday’s win over East Carolina. “But this journey is not over. The next chapter is there in front of us, and it’s gonna take every bit of preparation that we have. We’re playing a great football team. We have to go to work and put ourselves in position to be successful.”
To be bigger than a bowl game.