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VOL. 130 | NO. 185 | Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Thursday Game a Big One for Memphis Brand

By Don Wade

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It’s not an accident that the University of Memphis and University of Cincinnati are playing each other on ESPN’s Thursday night game this week.

The Tigers’ Thursday night game at home vs. Cincinnati on ESPN is a rare opportunity for Memphis football to occupy the national stage and for the brand to be brought to recruits in their living rooms. University officials are anticipating a crowd of 50,000 for the 6:30 p.m. kickoff.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

When the game went on the schedule for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, it was with the knowledge that the teams had shared the American Athletic Conference title in 2014.

Then at AAC Media Days, Cincinnati and Memphis were picked to meet in the first league championship game.

“We have made this a big game and Cincy has made this a big game so we’re preparing that way,” said Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch, who is a huge reason Memphis is 3-0. “This one just has a little more media coverage.”

This one, however, also presents multiple opportunities. One of them is the ever-elusive national stage, normally reserved for Power Five schools.

“We get to show everybody who Memphis is,” linebacker Wynton McManis said. “We’re still kinda going under the radar.”

That radar is the Associated Press and USA Today Amway Coaches’ polls. In the former, Memphis received exactly one vote this week while BYU, the team Memphis defeated in the Miami Beach Bowl, received 174 and is tied for 22nd with Wisconsin.

In the Coaches’ Poll, the Tigers actually lost votes after their thrilling 44-41 victory at Bowling Green Saturday, Sept. 19. Auburn, which needed overtime two weeks ago to beat FCS program Jacksonville State and then got drilled by LSU, stayed in the Coaches poll at No. 25.

The Tigers’ 10-game winning streak is the third-longest in the nation behind Ohio State (16) and TCU (11). Not surprisingly, Memphis coach Justin Fuente doesn’t even say his team has won 10 in a row. They won seven straight at the end of last season and have won the first three this year. Last season, to a coach, might as well be the Middle Ages.

“We started the season 3-0,” Fuente said. “We beat Missouri State, we beat Kansas, and we beat Bowling Green. We gotta play Cincinnati (2-1) on Thursday. It is not something we are concerned about. Last year is last year and this year is this year and we’re trying to find a way to win this game.

“Those things (poll recognition) all come. People get impatient and overreact for good and bad. It’s either the end of the world or it’s the best of times. Keep plugging away and things work out in the end.”

They did last year as the Tigers won 10 games and finished 25th in the last AP poll after their bowl victory.

Wherever they are or are not ranked, Fuente recognizes a weeknight ESPN game as the rare opportunity it is to gain the undivided attention of recruits and their parents without them having to leave the comfort of their living rooms.

“Winning the game is important,” Fuente said, “but having a chance to display how you play, what your program looks like and to represent your city, your community and university is important.”

And how Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium looks is crucial, too. The sombrero-shaped stadium holds almost 60,000. The hope is that at least 50,000 turn out. Thursday’s predicted high was 88 degrees with partly sunny skies. A huge crowd, given the buzz the team has created, would be assured if it wasn’t a school night.

Then again, isn’t there some educational value in seeing the major turnaround of the city’s football team first-hand?

“Everyone’s gotta be there,” kicker Jake Elliott said. “We need that place totally packed out.”

The only question is what kind of look will the Tigers provide on that national stage?

“We’ll not be wearing 901 helmets. We will not be wearing all black,” Fuente said. “I’m not telling you anymore.”

As for the game itself, well, win and the winning streak is at 11. Or four. Either way, Thursday night provides a captive college football audience.

“It’s the only game on,” Lynch said.

A Tigers game. In Memphis. Against a tough Cincinnati team. How about that?

“They don’t let you play on (national) TV against a rag-tag group,” Fuente said. “You’re going to play somebody really good. So yeah, it’s a fantastic opportunity to play what many people think is the best team in our league, at home, on national television.

“In the same respect, if we play really well and come up short, it won’t be the end of the world.”

Or even the end of the week.

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