Monday, October 8, 2018

Who Are These Tigers?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2018 at 9:50 AM

The Memphis Tigers have reached the midpoint of their football season with a 4-2 record. So why does it feel like there are more questions about this team than answers? Let's explore five.

 Can the Tigers beat someone their own size?
There's been a lot of bullying over the first half of the season, particularly in the four games we've seen at the Liberty Bowl. It's the second week of October and we've yet to see a snap with tension in the air during a Tiger home game. They opened the season by trouncing an FCS foe (Mercer). Since then, Memphis has hosted three "Group of Five" opponents that won't sniff bowl eligibility: Georgia State (now 2-4), South Alabama (1-5), and Connecticut (1-5). Even the teams that have beaten Memphis aren't within a connecting flight from the Top 25: Navy (2-3) and Tulane (2-4). The schedule has made for some fun statistics. 46 points per game! 547 yards per game! But who's to say the Tigers can actually land a punch after receiving one? (Didn't look like it in the Tulane loss.) We'll start to answer this question Saturday when the 10th-ranked UCF Knights come to town riding an 18-game winning streak. Could be the biggest win of the season (maybe two) for Memphis. Could be a very ugly dose of perspective.
click to enlarge Memphis quarterback Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis quarterback Brady White

Will we see a crowd of 40,000 at the Liberty Bowl this year?
Honestly, we may already have. A ticket-scanning glitch contributed to what seemed like a low number for the season-opener against Mercer. The eye test suggested more than 33,000 fans were in attendance on September 1st. But since then, Memphis hasn't even topped 30,000 in three games, none of which were played under stormy conditions. The light opposition surely contributed to the empty seats. (And the Liberty Bowl looks especially glum with fewer than 30,000 bodies in the seats, a historical problem for the facility and Tiger program.) Fall will finally arrive in the Mid-South this week, temperatures dropping into the sixties by the weekend. Maybe this will boost the community mood for Tiger football. UCF will be the first Top-10 team to visit Memphis since the 2009 season opener (Ole Miss was ranked 8th). Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 and the ABC/ESPN cameras will be there, so it will be a measurable moment for progress the football program is making. Bottom line: a football team with Top-25 aspirations should draw 40,000 for games without an SEC attraction.

 Will Darrell Henderson rush for 2,000 yards?
DeAngelo Williams came close to this milestone twice, falling 52 yards short in 2004 and 36 yards shy a year later. Through six games, Henderson has run for 934 yards, an average of 155.7 per game (second in the country). Should he maintain that average for six more games, he'd finish the regular season with 1,868 yards and (presumably) a bowl game to play. But here's the problem: A glance at the Tigers' remaining schedule shows no sign of Georgia State, South Alabama, or UConn. After this week's big test, the Tigers travel to SEC country (Missouri). Watch the three-game stretch next month when Memphis faces East Carolina, Tulsa, and SMU. If a healthy Henderson is given the ball enough, he may reel off one or two more 200-yard games, which would make the chase for 2,000 quite compelling.

Will the Tigers win a road game?
Sure, Memphis has only traveled twice to date. The weather was lousy at Navy and not much better at Tulane. Fumbles cost the Tigers the former game and a collective face plant the latter. Coaches like to say road games test a team's character. If so, the Tiger-vs.-Tiger tussle at Missouri on October 20th will reveal a lot about coach Mike Norvell, his staff, and the roster he's built over three seasons in Memphis. This game falling a week after the UCF clash is a scheduling head-scratcher. (Note: Hosting a Power Five team in September would be healthy and Mizzou will be here on September 23, 2023.) Merely a split of their next two games would have the Tigers in a good place for the season's final month. But a road win is a must, somewhere, some place.

 Will someone kick the damn ball to Tony Pollard?
The Tigers' lightning-strike of a returner has averaged 20.7 yards on kickoffs this season, a silly-low number for a player who averaged 40.0 yards a year ago. But Pollard has returned only four kicks. He remains one shy of the career record for kickoff-return touchdowns (7) because teams simply refuse to send the ball in his vicinity. Here's hoping a Tiger opponent takes on the challenge of putting a kickoff in Pollard's hands. A Top-10 team dodges no one, right? SEC teams don't avoid specialists from Group of Five programs, do they? Free Tony Pollard, ye coverage teams.

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