Article by: Isaac Weston (@isaacweston)
Memphis has it rough. The city is in a stage of urban renewal as old outdated buildings are being brought back to life and broken infrastructure has just now started to be repaired. The city only makes news for reasons dealing with crime and there is a very large population living below the poverty line. America views Memphis as a city ridden with violence and Elvis is the only reason the city has any significance. Tennessee views Memphis as part of Arkansas, and in comparison to other Tennessee cities, Nashville is the successful dad and Memphis is the drunk uncle. And throughout all of this negative mess, Memphis could not care any less about how she is thought of by others. Memphis is Memphis, and you have to take the bad with the good. All of the negative publicity Memphis has received at the state and national levels has only fueled the fire in the city. The harsh talk has led to a blue collar, “go and get it” mentality that has yielded startups like FedEx and has now carried over to a #18 Memphis Tigers football team.
The University of Memphis faces an uphill battle in recruiting and reputation every year. The school lies in the middle of Southeastern Conference territory which ultimately means facing giant neighbors like Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. Then on top of tough recruiting matchups against SEC powerhouses, Memphis can’t get recognition for having a solid program since they don’t fall under the Power Five Conference umbrella. The American Athletic Conference has started to become the strongest of the non-Power Five conferences, and that is evident as Memphis, Temple, and Houston have all found a spot in the AP Top 25 Ranking this week. Memphis climbed the highest. However, the accomplishments made by the Memphis team become diminished by those outside of the American Athletic Conference, since there is discussion that Memphis “doesn’t play any real teams.”
So, when it came time for the #13 Ole Miss Rebels to take the journey ninety minutes north to visit the Memphis Tigers at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday, Memphis had to play with a chip on their shoulder. This year, Memphis was 5-0 and hosting a 5-1 Ole Miss, who recently upset Alabama at Tuscaloosa and then turned around two weeks later and lost to a sharp Florida Gator team. Ole Miss started the season with two consecutive games scoring over 70 points, and was out to shut down the hype that Memphis had started to acquire. It should not be too big of a problem for an SEC team full of four and five star players to run over a young Memphis team who has just now left the building stage of the program. The only problem was Memphis is Memphis, and the city of Memphis has more pride in their sports teams than any other city within 500 miles. The Liberty Bowl was packed with 60,241 fans, and this game had been sold out before the Rebels even began to study film on Memphis. There was even buzz around campus that University of Memphis president Dr. David Rudd was attempting to get College Gameday to set up shop down South for this game. College Gameday fell through, but it turned out to be action-packed in Ann Arbor as well (sorry, Michigan fans).
Tiger fans and Rebel fans both were at the stadium Friday night and there were already thousands of people at the Liberty Bowl when my friends and I rolled in at 7:30 Saturday morning. By the 11:00a kickoff, the stadium was filled to the brim and it is only fitting the Liberty Bowl be covered in a blue and red. Then on the second play from scrimmage, the red fans were screaming as a trick play double pass put the Rebels on the board. A couple minutes later, the Rebels scored again, leaving the entire stadium shocked and silent as it was already 14-0 and we were only five minutes into the first quarter. That would be the last time the Rebels put a point up until late third quarter. The Memphis offense turned around, led by quarterback Paxton Lynch, and dropped 31 unanswered points. Lynch connected primarily with wide receivers Anthony Miller and Mose Frazier, ending the day by completing 39 of 53 passes, adding up to 384 yards and 3 TDs. Lynch also threw his first interception of the season, which came off of a tipped ball. The defense, which has been the Achilles heel of the team this season, stepped up big time delivering two crucial fourth-and-one stops, and also a couple of interceptions at the most-needed times. There was constant pressure on Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, and tight coverage on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Memphis kicker Jake Elliot remained perfect on the year drilling three field goals which helped keep the gap at a two possession ball game until the final firework. This 37-24 win over Ole Miss made the Memphis Tigers the first bowl eligible team in the NCAA for the 2015-2016 season and also put the team on the map for something other than leaving BYU bruised and bloody.
Memphis travels to Tulsa this week to face the Golden Hurricanes. Morale is high and the Tigers look to remain undefeated. This week, Ole Miss welcomes College Station’s very own Texas A&M and the Rebels will look to keep conference losses at one on the year.