GRAB YOUR SHOULDER PADS Ahhh . . . September in the Mid-South. The temperature drops into the low 90s, kids hither and yon return to the classroom, and the spit-flying collision of helmets and shoulder pads can mean only one thing. Let’s play some football! (Word is, there were some college games that counted last month. I can no more pay attention to football in August than I can fat, bearded men wearing red suits in April. In the name of Knute Rockne, let these big men have a summer!) Am I the only one who recognizes the seismic shift in expectations of Memphis Tiger football this season? An established (though young) quarterback in place. An offense with a higher performance ceiling than the defense. And a coach who has claimed his team will pass first and run, well, later. Is this the University of Memphis or the University of Florida? I’ll tell you one thing: I can’t wait to see them play. Based on last Saturday’s drubbing of Murray State Ñ be they a I-AA opponent or not Ñ it’s going to be an intriguing season at the Liberty Bowl. The 52-6 victory was the program’s first season-opening win since 1993 and the most lopsided Tiger triumph in 33 years. Here are a few questions for the months ahead, based on the Tigers’ first 60 minutes.
  • Will Danny Wimprine make Tiger fans forget Steve Matthews? Not since Matthews was hooking up with Isaac Bruce in 1993 has Memphis fielded a team with the “vertical” potential of this squad. As fun as it (sometimes) was watching the likes of Bernard Oden and Qadry Anderson dart upfield on a broken pass play, how much more pleasant to see a drop-back signal-caller, with 220 solid pounds to withstand the hits a good pocket passer is going to have to take. (Remember the gasps throughout the Liberty Bowl when the undersized Scott Scherer would go down in a heap?) Wimprine has only 10 games under his belt, but he’s a mature (for college) 21 years of age and appears to have a fire in his belly when it comes to moving his offense. If he continues to develop as a sophomore, imagine what the next two years might bring. Having slung five touchdown passes against the Racers, let’s just say the kid’s ahead of the curve.
  • Is this Ñ finally Ñ the offensive line Rip Scherer dreamed of? The former Tiger coach desperately yearned for a group of men that could consistently win that push at the snap critical to long drives. This may actually be the bunch. Three senior starters return from 2001: tackles Wade Smith and Doug Whittaker, and center Jimond Pugh. Pugh has started no fewer than 23 games as a Tiger. He and Smith are legitimate all-conference candidates and will be Wimprine’s best friends by season’s end if the quarterback can stay upright. The lone concern might be the line’s size. With guard Joe Gerda the heaviest lineman at 304 pounds, the Tigers have what might be seen as a light O-line.
  • Will there be enough snaps for both Dante Brown and DeAngelo Williams? Having averaged a healthy 4.9 yards a carry last season, there’s no reason Brown can’t become the program’s third 1,000-yard rusher. Unless, that is, the freshman Williams (out of Wynne, Arkansas) steals some of that yardage. My guess is the larger (216 pounds) Brown will be pushed by Williams to the point he exceeds last year’s total for 100-yard games (3) and touchdowns (12).
  • Will Tiger fans make October 8th count? In a scheduling rarity, Memphis will face defending C-USA champ Louisville on a Tuesday night in the Liberty Bowl, a game to be televised nationally on ESPN2. A great chance for Tiger Nation to show that Memphis football has arrived and that there is more to pigskins in the Mid-South than that SEC version of the Bermuda Triangle. Memphis fans can either fill the Liberty Bowl for the most attractive home date of the season, or stay home for another episode of “Frasier.” Be sure of this: Danny Wimprine and Louisville’s Heisman candidate, Dave Ragone, will provide more fireworks than a season full of Niles and Daphne. See you at the stadium.
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