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VOL. 130 | NO. 201 | Thursday, October 15, 2015

With Both Teams Ranked, Ole Miss-Memphis Matchup is High-Stakes Game

By Don Wade

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Not only did University of Memphis athletics director Tom Bowen lead the charge to hand out doughnuts to Tigers students waiting in line for Ole Miss game tickets, he offered them the opportunity to buy extra tickets so as to expand the student section at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The No. 22 undefeated Memphis Tigers are looking to score an upset on the national stage Saturday against Ole Miss. The No. 12 Rebels, meanwhile, have their eye on staying alive for the College Football Playoff.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“Had to,” Bowen said, describing a good problem previously foreign to Tigers football.

His deputy, Mark Alnutt, has spent this week trying to make sure traffic doesn’t look like a giant huddle. Alnutt is imploring Tiger Nation to awaken early for the Saturday, Oct. 17, game and not just “roll out of bed at 10 and get to the stadium at 11,” adding with gusto, “Gates open at 5 a.m.”

Coach Justin Fuente has watched Ole Miss on film and, truthfully, it’s a bit of a horror show: elite team speed, quarterback Chad Kelly’s arm, and a defensive line that “jumps off of the film at you” and wants to do very bad things to Tigers star quarterback Paxton Lynch.

Fuente’s challenges are as real as, well, Rebels defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche being 6-foot-4, 296 pounds, and able to squat 500 pounds, bench 400 pounds and run a 4.7 40-yard dash. In other words, he’s an unblockable athletic freak.

And then there are the respective – but not always respectful – fan bases of schools a little more than an hour apart. Ole Miss, ranked No. 12 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 13 in the Associated Press Poll, is at least a 10-point favorite over the Tigers, who are No. 22 in the coaches poll and unranked in the AP poll, but also undefeated at 5-0.

That’s why on Saturday at 11 a.m., ABC will be sharing this local rivalry with the rest of America and beyond. For a football fan in the Mid-South, it’s enough to take your breath away.

“We’ll let the fans handle all the hype,” said Memphis linebacker Wynton McManis. “We just want to focus on going out and winning the game.”

It’s maybe the most sensible thing anyone has said all week.

Ole Miss is 5-1, having lost 38-10 two weeks ago at Florida, but also having beaten mighty Alabama 43-37 back on Sept. 19. The SEC West is theirs for the taking. Run the table, and they probably have a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Memphis is in the hunt for an outright American Athletic Conference championship and, if able to win out – they’re on a 12-game winning streak that dates to the middle of last season – a candidate for a New Year’s Day bowl game. Beating Ole Miss would add shine to the resume.

All of that is looking way ahead, but there is a lot at stake. And fans, before taking that first early-morning nip on Tiger Lane, are abuzz with anticipation they can’t be tamped down.

“They live and die by our football programs,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who once upon a time was the football coach at Briarcrest High School. “From play to play, from game to game, that explains the passion that their fans and our fans have. (This game) means a lot. They work together, they live together.”

For the Rebels, the game hardly qualifies as a referendum on their program. Well, unless they happen to lose. Then they would be branded as imposters who got “lucky” by Alabama committing five turnovers.

Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly’s arm coupled with the Rebels’ speed and strong defensive line pose major challenges for the Tigers.

(AP Photo/Thomas Graning, File)

Kelly gives the Tigers their due, but only to a point.

“They’ll be good; they’re undefeated,” he said. “But nobody can stop us except ourselves.”

And in truth, the performance of the young Memphis defense this season suggests stopping Kelly and a talented receiving corps led by Laquon Treadwell will be close to impossible. Memphis, after all, has twice given up more than 40 points in victories over Bowling Green and Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the Tigers know the importance of not starting slow and spotting the other team a lead – something they’ve done and overcome several times this season.

“Especially with a team like this,” said Memphis wide receiver Phil Mayhue. “We can’t afford to fall behind.”

Big picture, of course, the Tigers are already way ahead. In Fuente’s third year, they won 10 games and a bowl game. They finished 25th in the last AP poll, and they are now seeking their 13th straight victory.

Fuente, too, greeted students in line for tickets early in the morning this week.

“It was just an awesome way to start the day,” he said. “To get to spend time with young students that are excited about something that you’re a part of is a fun thing.”

Worth remembering: the momentum for Tigers football got going before this game and should still be there after it – regardless of outcome.

But there will be a game and if there’s a game, there can be only one objective.

Said McManis: “Anybody’s beatable.”

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