Monday, August 26, 2019

Three (Early) Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Aug 26, 2019 at 9:57 AM

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

• How big is the Ole Miss game?
The Tigers can stack up wins in September and October, but whatever chances they have of cracking the Top 25 require beating the Rebels this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl.

Their three biggest tests in conference play will be the last three games of the season: at Houston (November 16th), at USF (November 23rd), and a home tilt against Cincinnati (November 29th). This weekend's opener will have the largest crowd of the season, an early-afternoon (actually late-morning) television audience, and the opportunity for the Tigers to earn their first win over an SEC foe since the upset of 13th-ranked Ole Miss in 2015 (part of an 8-0 start that season).

There was a time — not that long ago — when SEC competition was senseless for the Memphis program. Not anymore. Mike Norvell's vision of taking the Tigers new places includes trading blows, now and then, with the big boys. A win Saturday sets a tone for the 11 games to follow. A loss would be a scar come bowl season. (A win Saturday would mark the first time the Memphis program has won six straight season-openers.)
click to enlarge 1995 Tiger Football Preview
  • 1995 Tiger Football Preview

I really miss Dennis Freeland this time of year. The former editor of the Flyer wrote on a variety of subjects — always with depth and a sense of connection — but he most loved his "side gig" of covering Memphis Tiger football. Dennis died much too young (at age 45, of brain cancer) in January 2002, eight months before DeAngelo Williams first carried a football at the Liberty Bowl. That's a cruel twist to Dennis's passing, but I've long felt he had a view of the NFL-bound tailback unique to the rest of us merely gawking in the stands (or press box). Dennis would be gawking, indeed, if he had lived to see the current Tigers, their offense having averaged more than 40 points a game two seasons in a row.

We first devoted a cover story to previewing the Tiger football season in 1995, the year Rip Scherer arrived to "chart a new course." Oh, well. Some courses lead to 40 points per game, and some don't. This week's issue will be the 16th year in a row Tiger football has landed on our cover. It's a partnership, of sorts, that we feel connects our readers to a special hometown team, one we — and in particular, Dennis Freeland — were covering when it wasn't very cool.

• Why is attendance at Tiger games declining? The U of M averaged 43,802 tickets sold over six games in 2015, not coincidentally the last time the Tigers hosted an SEC opponent. Over the three ensuing seasons — all of them successful, one that finished with the Tigers ranked in the Top 25 — Memphis has averaged 37,346 . . . 33,307 . . . and 30,178. As Mike Norvell has built the most potent offense in the program's history, fewer fans have chosen to see the records fall in person.

I have a theory — beyond Ole Miss visiting this season — that might contribute to the sagging attendance numbers: one too many games. Memphis hosted seven games each of the last three years. Even spread over three months, this gives fans a chance to say, "I'll catch the next game" a bit too casually. With only six home games on the schedule this season, if you want to see Patrick Taylor climb the Tiger rushing chart one last might want to make it this week's game. And it's a funky schedule, with only one home game in October and the two in November separated by 27 days. The Tiger players like to preach that the next game is the most important on the schedule. Same goes for Tiger attendance figures.

A quick fourth thought: The Tigers will go 10-4 this season. They'll win the AAC West, lose the conference championship game (to Cincinnati), and win their first bowl game in five years.

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