VOL. 132 | NO. 257 | Thursday, December 28, 2017
By Don Wade
Iowa State plays in college football mecca as a Power 5 member, albeit in the Big 12. The University of Memphis lives in the non-Power 5 outer ring that is the American Athletic Conference. The Cyclones (7-5) play a tougher league schedule. That’s just true. And they pulled two big-time upsets by beating Oklahoma, which is in the College Football Playoffs, and then-No. 4 TCU.
Memphis (10-2) also notched two wins over ranked opponents by beating UCLA and Navy. Both were No. 25 at the time.
Both teams might have lost their coach to a bigger-time program. Instead, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Memphis’s Mike Norvell, each in his second year, signed lucrative contract extensions.
Crews paint an endzone at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Tuesday, Dec. 26, in preparation for Saturday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl game between the Memphis Tigers and Iowa State Cyclones. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
When the two teams meet at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (televised by ABC), this won’t just be about ending one season, but about building momentum going into the next.
“It’s two programs that are definitely progressing,” Norvell said. “With the job coach Campbell and his staff have done, they’ve got some remarkable players, and you can see the belief in what they’re doing.
“It sets up for a big game because all those same qualities and feelings we have here. To be able to play a team that has captured the national spotlight this year, we know there’s going to be a lot of eyes on this game and we want to make sure we show well.”
Campbell said of Iowa State: “You’ve got a football team that has changed the culture of a program. We’ve got 20 seniors that have never experienced a bowl game.”
In fact, the last time Iowa State played in a bowl was in Memphis: the Dec. 31, 2012, AutoZone Liberty Bowl when Tulsa beat the Cyclones.
“It’s the first bowl game for anyone who didn’t transfer into the program,” said Iowa state offensive lineman Jake Campos. “It’s awesome.”
Which is how the Tigers feel about playing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the first time in their history.
It’s the program’s record fourth consecutive bowl game, but it’s also the most prestigious bowl game in Memphis history.
“It seems like everybody’s asking for a ticket,” said Tigers All-America return man Tony Pollard, who went to Melrose High School. “The city’s behind us.”
Said senior Memphis right guard Gabe Kuhn: “Definitely for these seniors, playing in the Liberty Bowl is going to be a big thing for us. We want to defend it. We’ve never been undefeated before (at home). So to add one more win would be great.”
The game itself sets up a showdown between Iowa State’s defense, which is probably the toughest Memphis has seen all season (allowing just 21 points per game), and the Tigers’ high-flying offense that averages 47.7 points per game (second-best in the land).
Putting pressure on quarterback Riley Ferguson and trying to contain record-breaking All-America receiver Anthony Miller will be Iowa State’s first focus. Former Tiger quarterback Danny Wimprine, who in 2003 led Memphis to its first bowl game in 32 years, says good luck with that.
“(Miller) is one of those guys where there’s never a negative play,” Wimprine said. “The worst case is an incompletion. He’s got your back. He’ll go up and fight for the ball. And that’s no offense to any of my receivers. We were just all the same – pretty good, and hard workers.”
Cornerback Brian Peavy, an All-Big 12 selection, makes clear the Cyclones are not just happy to be here.
“This is more than just another game or a celebration,” he said. “We’ve got something to prove.”
The Tigers can relate. When the Big 12 started exploring expansion, Memphis didn’t even make the cut for the long list, never mind the short list.
“I wouldn’t say we’re tired of (hearing about the Big 12),” said Memphis sophomore receiver Kedarian Jones. “But …. Yeah, I guess you could say that, I’m not gonna lie. To us, we’re not afraid of anyone. Bama, anybody, we’re gonna come out ready.”
And so the stage is set. Both teams believe there is something to prove and both have reason to feel good about the future.
Wimprine, who lives in the New Orleans area now, had hoped to get to the game. He can’t, but will do the next-best thing.
“It’ll either be on my TV or my phone,” he said. “This doesn’t happen all the time. I gotta make sure I’m watching.”