Monday, December 21, 2020

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2020 at 8:23 AM

• The Memphis Tigers need to win a bowl game, and the Montgomery Bowl will have to do. The Tigers finished 2019 by playing in the 84th Cotton Bowl, one of college football's prestigious "New Year's Six" events, an unprecedented stage for the Memphis program (and Ryan Silverfield's debut as head coach). Almost precisely a year later, they'll finish 2020 in the very first — and maybe last — Montgomery Bowl, an event replacing something called the Fenway Bowl for reasons to do with the ongoing pandemic. After facing one of the sport's blue bloods (Penn State) in last year's Cotton Bowl, Memphis will oppose a team whose initials — FAU — roll off the tongue of only the most devoted college football fans. (Florida Atlantic University finished second in the East Division of Conference USA, the Tigers' old stomping grounds.)
click to enlarge Ryan Silverfield and Brady White embrace on Senior Day. - JOE MURPHY
  • Joe Murphy
  • Ryan Silverfield and Brady White embrace on Senior Day.

But the site and opponent really don't matter. As well as the Tigers have played over the last seven seasons, they are riding a five-game losing streak in bowl games. They've come close, losing by a point (to Iowa State) in the 2017 Liberty Bowl and by three points (to Wake Forest) in the 2018 Birmingham Bowl. Two Tigers (Anthony Miller and Darrell Henderson) have reached All-America status without enjoying a bowl-game victory. It would be nice to see record-setting quarterback Brady White throw a 90th career touchdown pass (he needs three) and finish his career with a big, shiny trophy. Even if it's a trophy no team will ever raise again.

• Over the first century of Memphis Tiger football, exactly one receiver topped 1,000 yards in a season (Isaac Bruce in 1993). A Memphis receiver has now topped 1,000 yards in each of the last five seasons. And junior speed demon Calvin Austin III did so this fall in just 10 games. It's not such a surprise when you consider the philosophy transformation that arrived with coach Justin Fuente in 2012. Recruit with speed a priority. Create space with beyond-conventional play-calling. Find quarterbacks unafraid of throwing the ball down field. It makes for exciting Saturdays, gets Memphis on national highlight shows, and attracts precisely the kind of players who want to play fast and deep. (They all do.) The Tigers have a program-record seven straight winning seasons. Again, not such a surprise.

• It's staggering to consider the directions Memphis and Tennessee have taken since the programs last played. Three years after Memphis played on home turf in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, the Tennessee Volunteers — owners of a 3-7 record — will appear in the event for the first time since 1986. The Tigers and Vols last met in 2010, a 50-14 victory for UT at the Liberty Bowl. Memphis has still won only one game (out of 23) against the state's most decorated program. But check out the win totals over the last seven years for Tennessee: 7, 9, 9, 4, 5, 8, 3. And the Memphis win totals over the same period: 10, 9, 8, 10, 8, 12, 7. If football in the state of Tennessee were a see-saw, it has swung left (west) with a thud. And it's not budging. The Vols are not on a future Memphis schedule, meaning the current drought between meetings — the longest since the programs first met in 1969 — will continue. And this is a shame for football in the Mid-South. That 1996 upset of Peyton Manning and friends lives on in the memory of Tiger fans. It would be nice to see these programs play with Memphis as the favorite.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tennessee announced Monday afternoon that it will not play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl due to Covid-positive tests within the program.

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