For the first time since November, the Memphis Tigers’ football team will set up shop at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to start their 2019 season. This year’s season opener comes with added excitement for fans because Ole Miss is one of the team’s oldest rivals.
Ole Miss holds a 47-11-2 record against Memphis, with their last victory taking place in 2016, but the win was vacated due to the former’s NCAA violations. However, the Tigers showed that they had what it took to compete against the SEC mainstays after defeating them in 2015, 37-24.
Four years after that win, the Tigers look poised to have another competitive game, despite losing some key pieces of their team this past offseason. Luckily, they are not the only team who’s suffered losses which makes the game quite interesting.
As previously mentioned, the Tigers lost their fair share of talent this offseason but did not seem to be perturbed by it. Two of their leading running backs, Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard, are donning NFL jerseys after being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Three of last season’s starting offensive linemen graduated, leaving openings at left tackle, center and right tackle. Factor in the loss of starting middle linebacker and lead tackler, Curtis Akins, and you have a team that is looking for several new starters.
Despite the changes, Tigers’ head coach Mike Norvell said he is unfazed, and he still believes his team can compete.
“I really like this team,” Norvell said. “I think the culture has been established. Our guys understand the expectation. We’ve had a couple dynamic players that have departed and moved on to the [NFL]. I like the guys that have stepped up and established themselves as go-to guys and playmakers for this team.”
The players Norvell referred to are running back Kenneth Gainwell, offensive tackle Obinna Eze and cornerback Chris Claybrooks. The trio hasn’t received the most in-game actions and only have one start between them.
Though inexperienced, it has not stopped them from being confident, and all are expected to have big seasons in their expanded roles.
Another facet of the Tigers’ game worth noting is their new and improved pass rush. Norvell said that before the start of last year’s recruiting cycle, he wanted to add more of a pass rush to his team, and he did just that.
Transfer students Everitt Cunningham and Wardalis Ducksworth received rave reviews as they continue to learn new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller’s defense.
Ole Miss Rebels
While the Rebels are rebuilding themselves, they hope to reestablish their offensive identities. With top receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown entering the NFL and quarterback Jordan Ta’amu graduating, their passing game has more questions than answers.
That makes the presence of running back Scottie Phillips all the more critical. In his junior season, he rushed for 928 yards on just 153 carries with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Those numbers are only going to grow as the Rebels prepare redshirt freshman, Matt Corral, to begin his first season starting. Though the California native has received excellent reviews this offseason, it is clear that Norvell is more focused on stopping the impressive Rebels’ running game.
“They have recruited at a high level,” Norvell said. “Not only the running back Scottie (Phillips), but the two freshmen they have (Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner). The Ealy kid was a five-star recruit in the country. That will be a great challenge.”
Even with all of the questions surrounding their offense, improving their 116th ranked defense was considered a much bigger priority.
They managed to return eight starters from last season’s defense including linebacker MoMo Sanogo, defensive linemen Benito Jones and defensive tackle Josiah Coatney. All are hoping to expand on their strong 2018 seasons.
When asked by the media about the Rebels’ defense, Norvell said that he is well aware of the talent they have along their defensive line.
“They have a talented defensive front,” Norvell said. “These guys are big, strong and powerful. You look at last year, they had to replace some guys that maybe didn’t have as much experience, but the talent shows up on film. We’re expecting a heck of a matchup. We’re going to have to play at a high level.”
While this game is an excellent matchup on paper, I see it as a way for the Tigers to start their season off with a big win against their SEC rival.
But what will give the Tigers the edge this game is not their offense, it is their defense.
Ole Miss’ offense has done their best to reload their offensive weapons, but wideouts like Metcalf and Brown do not just fall from trees. Braylon Sanders and Elijah Moore are good players, but they are not as talented as their predecessors, which should make things easier for the aforementioned Claybrooks and Jim Thorpe watchlist cornerback T.J. Carter.
As long the Tigers’ secondary can hold up, and their new-look pass rush can force Corral into mistakes, this game has the potential to be a runaway for them, and if not, it will come down to the wire.
As of right now, this reporter is going to go with the former.
Score Prediction: Memphis Tigers 27-10