Game preview: Tennessee vs. Memphis
Let's say Saturday night is a good night for football, that Tennessee fans are stoked by the win over South Carolina, and a crowd of 100,000 shows up at Neyland Stadium.
If so, the Memphis Tigers will be playing in front of 96,000 more than turned out for their home game last week.
These are rough times for the University of Memphis - and not just because John Calipari bolted for Kentucky and left behind the "Vacated" sign.
Memphis football is struggling, on the field (2-6) and at the turnstiles (4,117 on a rainy Tuesday night for East Carolina).
Coach Tommy West, a former Vol player and assistant coach, is feeling the heat despite getting the Tigers to bowl games five of the past six seasons.
"I do think we're a better team than what we're playing now,'' West said this week.
"In the past we've always been able to pull it out when we struggled. I haven't been able to hit the right buttons to get this team going.''
I don't expect Tennessee fans to muster much sympathy. Many wouldn't care if the Vols never played the Tigers again, be it football, hoops or lawn darts.
UT's coaches, however, feel differently. Bruce Pearl is adamant about flying the orange flag in the state's richest recruiting base. Lane Kiffin jetted out of his introductory press conference 11 months ago to visit Memphis prospect Marlon Brown.
"I'd love to play them every year, sign a long contract,'' Kiffin said Tuesday. "Memphis is obviously very critical to us.''
The critical rivalry renews Saturday after a two-year absence. In 2006, the Vols dominated the Tigers 41-7 - a result atypical of the way the series has gone lately.
Five of the past eight meetings were anybody's game.
The Tigers' most recent appearance in Neyland Stadium was a 20-16 UT win in 2005. If star running back DeAngelo Williams had played (he was injured), the Tigers might have snatched their second win over Tennessee.
The ledger tilts UT's way, 20-1. In 1996, a 4-7 Memphis team stunned No. 6-ranked, Peyton Manning-led Tennessee, 21-17.
In 1999, No. 7 UT staged a last-gasp drive to pull out a 17-16 win in Knoxville.
In 2000, the Vols would land in the Cotton Bowl. Memphis would finish 4-7. But when they faced off, a field goal with 13 seconds to play saved UT's day, 19-17.
"It's an intense rivalry,'' senior lineman Cory Sullins said Tuesday. "We're going to take 'em seriously.
"We don't want to face the people in the state about us losing to Memphis.''
Nor do Kiffin and his recruiters.
The current UT roster has eight players from the Memphis area. Dan Williams and Chris Walker are defensive stars. Greg King and Marlon Walls might be one day.
"I think we've made some headway,'' Kiffin said. "We've pounded away in there. I think it helps, too, to see Memphis guys playing so well for us right now.''
By my rough count, 42 Memphis-area prospects play in the SEC. Every league school except Florida has one.
"Going back to my high school days,'' said UT's Williams, "I knew somebody was going to be there to watch me.
"SEC schools are where we end up going in the end. I think it's kind of a little SEC secret down there.''
Sometimes SEC players end up back at Memphis when things don't work out. The Tigers have transfers from five SEC schools, including Malcolm Rawls from UT.
Whether Memphis was their first option or their second, the Tigers get amped up to take on the big boys before the big crowds.
Tennessee is a 26-point favorite.
The Tigers' only real 2009 highlight is beating UTEP the week after UTEP upset Houston.
Could that somehow translate into any Tennessee hand-wringing Saturday night?
"If you've watched us play, you wouldn't think that,'' said West. "Because Tennessee is playing awfully well right now.''
Yeah, but we've heard that one before over the years.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.