For Ole Miss come September, all the talk of national contention will be an afterthought, as Memphis presents the first step in a season showered with expectations.
The Tigers, who Ole Miss has beaten four-straight times, have appeared in five bowls over the last six years, including a St. Petersburg berth last season. Entering his ninth season, head coach Tommy West notched his 47th win in 2008, and now sits third all-time for wins in school history. Billy J. Murphy holds the all-time lead in wins with his 91-44-1 record over 14 seasons.
Offensively, Memphis returns four of its top offensive playmakers in 2009. An offense that averaged 27.2 yards per game, the Tigers finished the season ranked second in Conference USA in rushing offense with an average of 194.8 yards per game on the ground.
Spearheading the rushing attack is senior RB Curtis Steele, who totaled 1,223 yards and seven TD's last season. With his stellar junior campaign, Steele, a junior college transfer, became the first Tiger since Heisman candidate DeAngelo Williams to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season.
After completing 57 percent of his passes for 2,200 yards a year ago, dual-threat quarterback Arkelon Hall leads the Tigers through the air. The senior started 11 games last season, including a matchup with Louisville, where he attempted 55 passes – the fifth most in school history.
Hall closed the season ranked 69th nationally in total passing yards (2,275), 52nd in total offense (225.0), 50th in passing yards per game (206.8), 52nd in passing (17.4 completions per game) and 69th in pass efficiency (121.7).
As has often been the case over the years, Memphis boasts a receiving core littered with talent. The solid one-two punch of Carlos Singleton and Duke Calhoun is back, as the pair combined for 1,278 yards and eight scores on 92 receptions last season.
A former recruiting target for the Rebels, Ole Miss fans have become very familiar with Calhoun over his Tiger career, as the rising senior enters the 2009 season on a 37-game active receiving streak. The streak ranks third nationally, with Calhoun ranking second all-time at Memphis in career receptions (144) and third in career yards (2,058).
A glaring weakness heading into the season will be the Tigers' offensive line, as the group lost four starting seniors from last year's squad. Brandon Pearce, Cody Stubblefield, Philip Beliles and Michael Denning are all gone, leaving junior Dominik Riley, who started all 13 games at left guard, as the lone returner.
Defensively, Memphis made great strides last season, after ranking 103rd nationally in rushing defense in 2007. The Tigers jumped to 76th under defensive coordinator Tim Walton, but saw Walton bolt to Detroit as the Lions' secondary coach. Kenny Ingram was promoted in March to take over, after spending the last three years coaching the team's linebackers.
Overall, Memphis improved from 100th in 2007 to 57th in total defense last season, with senior defensive back Alton Starr playing a major part. Starr, a 2008 C-USA Honorable Mention selection, started all 13 games at free safety and finished the year as the team leader in tackles (90).
Also a 2008 Honorable Mention selection, senior linebacker Greg Jackson was named Memphis' Defensive Player of the Year. He played in 10 games last season, with nine starts at outside linebacker. Jackson led the team and ranked eighth in C-USA in tackles for loss with 11.5. He also ranked second on the team in sacks with four and was sixth in tackles (52).
While the defensive line offers depth this season, the unit only returns one starter for a line ranked fifth in sacks a year ago. Greg Terrell, Jada Brown, Josh Weaver and Steven Turner have all logged extensive playing time over the years, but none are flashy. Demetrius Culpepper, Joel McCleod and Charlie Bryant also bring experience.
With a 41-24 win over Memphis last season, Ole Miss scored its most points against the Tigers since a 61-8 win in 1980. The Rebels lead the all-time series 46-10-2, including an 18-2 record in Oxford, and have won 13 of the last 17 meetings dating back to 1988.
Ole Miss has won 12 of their last 13 season openers, with a 20-13 loss to these same Tigers the lone exception. In season openers against Memphis, the team is 31-3-2. The Rebels have opened with Memphis more than any other opponent.
But unlike last season's meeting, the Tigers often present a challenge for the Red and Blue. Over the course of three years following the lone loss in 2004, Ole Miss topped the Tigers by a combined total of nine points.
However, to be considered a legitimate national contender, handling inferior opponents is critical. It could be argued that Memphis is the toughest non-conference contest on tap this season, so getting a win in convincing fashion could set the tone for a much-anticipated year.
Scouting the Opponents: Memphis
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