Hear Me Roar 

The football Tigers come out of the box growling.

Let's start with some shameless self-promotion.

"Hear Me Roar" is actually the title of this month's cover story in the Flyer's sister publication, Memphis magazine, which features Frank Murtaugh's excellent profile of Danny Wimprine, the U of M's star senior quarterback. But I couldn't help but think of those three words on the cover -- Hear Me Roar -- while exiting the upper reaches of sold-out Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford last Saturday evening, after Wimprine had led his team to a comprehensive 20-13 victory over Ole Miss.

Needless to say, Tiger fans were beside themselves with jubilation, as those of us crammed high up in Sections R and S made our way down the ramps inside the bowels of the stadium. At exactly the same moment, the victorious white-clad team itself was making its way to the visitors' locker room by way of a chain-linked, cage-like corridor that led from the field, visible far below us at ground level. The crowd on the ramps went bananas when they saw the caged Tigers passing by. I've heard a lot of roars in my time, at lots of dramatic sports moments, but never one quite like that one.

The effect of thousands of blue-clad fans screaming their approval -- and the players, Wimprine included, of course, roaring right back -- was stupendous. All that noise, reverberating off all that concrete, deep in enemy territory: If anyone doubted that this U of M football program had indeed "arrived," seeing that emotional explosion would have made him or her a believer.

The joy was mixed, of course, with relief. Coach Tommy West spoke for the fans in the media room after the game, when he pointed out how concerned he had been that, after all last year's success, "We would come down here and lay an egg." But if any eggs were laid Saturday in Oxford, the Tiger offense and defense made sure to turn them into some mighty impressive omelets.

The U of M dominated Ole Miss on both sides of the ball and made all the proverbial big plays when they had to. (Kudos especially to first-time starter Tim Goodwell at linebacker, who led the team in tackles and took charge of the defense as if he were a three-year veteran, and wide receiver Chris Kelley, whose key receptions earned him my Mr. Clutch award.) Overall, the Tigers played much as you might expect a Top 25 team -- strange as it still sounds, putting those words in the same sentence as "University of Memphis" -- to play in its season-opener: rusty in places, a tad confused in others, but capable of getting the job done.

Yes, I know, those of us who have been around Tiger football for a decade or three know that we have no business getting cocky. This is a program, remember, that, historically, has made losing an art form. Who can forget that astonishing 1991 season-opening upset of USC in Los Angeles, followed immediately by a fall-flat-on-your-face homecoming 10-0 defeat at the hands of these same Rebels? No, ESPN's Lee Corso's ridiculous prediction of an undefeated season for the Tigers notwithstanding, the Fat Lady hasn't even gotten dressed yet, let alone started singing.

But there are signs that this team might be something truly special. For one thing, the two greatest offensive players in Tiger football history -- Numbers 18 and 20, numbers you saw everywhere on blue-clad fans last Saturday -- are playing their third consecutive season together. Few college teams in America can match the one-two punch of Wimprine and DeAngelo Williams, the Gilbert and Sullivan of U of M football. Williams just may be the best-running back in the nation. Wimprine is blessed with perhaps the deepest receiver corps in program history. On Saturday, he completed passes to no less than eight of his teammates.

Danny and the Jets. DeAngelo for De Heisman. It all adds up to a 2004 Tiger team that, barring injury, should have no trouble matching last year's prodigious offensive output. Whether this year's team can outperform last year's will hinge, I suspect, almost entirely upon how well the defense handles teams with similarly strong passing attacks. Our secondary looked shaky in places Saturday, and I shudder to think how a quarterback like Louisville's Stefan LeFors might exploit weaknesses there or pick apart our inexperienced linebacker corps, something I was surprised to see Ole Miss not do to any great extent last Saturday.

But, hey, right now we're 1-0 and still in the hunt for the national championship. Tiger fans' heads are not yet so big that they'll be thinking along those lines. But they will settle for the rare chance at an extended bout of daydreaming.


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