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VOL. 132 | NO. 226 | Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tigers Can Clinch AAC West Saturday at Home vs. SMU

By Don Wade

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Good things were expected. Great things were considered possible. In the preseason, anticipation was high for Mike Norvell’s second University of Memphis football team.

His stock line then, and since then, has been that it’s always a positive whenever people are taking about the program. Ramps up the interest. Helps recruiting. Maybe gets a few more fans out to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

But there is another side, a side that always gives a coach concern. Pats on the back before the work starts can be a dangerous thing.

Wide receiver Anthony Miller, right, will be looking for daylight in the secondary Saturday when the Memphis Tigers can clinch a berth in the AAC title game. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

“We came into the season and we had the highest number of players on watch lists of any team we’ve had here,” Norvell said Monday, Nov. 13, looking ahead to the 11 a.m. home game with SMU on Saturday, Nov. 18 (televised on ESPNews), when the Tigers potentially could clinch a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game. “We were picked preseason to be Western Division champions. Those are all distractions.”

And distractions have an immense ability to do harm, to even derail a train on a roll.

“You see a lot of teams out there that have early season expectations that don’t ever live up to it,” Norvell said. “You see teams have mid-season success, win a big game, (beat) a Power 5 opponent, you get ranked for the first time … and then you see a lot of teams that fade off into disappointment.”

So far, Memphis has avoided the distractions and the disappointment. They will enter this week’s game sitting at No. 17 in the Amway Coaches Poll, No. 18 in the AP Poll and firmly in the College Football Playoff rankings. They were No. 18 in the rankings released last week and there will be new rankings revealed on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

The Tigers are coming off a bye week, and are 8-1 and 5-1 in the AAC. And they are that train on a roll, riding a five-game winning streaking and having last lost on Sept. 30, 40-13, at Central Florida.

“You look back to that trip to Orlando and that was an experience we had to build off of,” Norvell said. “There was adversity. We turned the ball over. We didn’t play our best game …

“But I challenged our team when we got back. What are we going to learn from it? Are we gonna take it as a bad night and go along with the routine as usual or have a greater focus, a greater detail, a greater passion for our personal improvement? And then collectively becoming a more cohesive unit.

“That’s what I think I’ve seen us do. The greatest thing about it is we’ve played better from it. Really, learning from experience is positive and negative, and I think that’s something this team has capitalized on.”

All of that has the Tigers in position to wrap up the West Division title with a win over SMU (6-4, 3-3) this Saturday. Memphis needs to win only one of his last two home games to take care of business itself. The regular season ends with a visit from East Carolina (2-8, 1-5).

The only scenario in which the Tigers don’t win the division: Either SMU or Houston (8-3, 4-2) wins its last two games while Memphis drops its last two games.

If UCF wins at Temple this week and beats South Florida in the season’s last week to win the East Division title, that would send the Tigers back to Orlando for the Dec. 2 conference championship game – provided Memphis does its part to win the West.

But if South Florida wins the East Division title, there’s a chance Memphis could host the league title game. If teams have the same record, the team ranked higher in the College Football Playoff rankings would be the home team in the league championship game. UCF was undefeated and ranked 14th as of Nov. 13 and South Florida (8-1, 5-1) was behind Memphis, at No. 23.

Now, everyone from quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller and all the way down to the backup guys on special teams have earned the opportunity that is before them on Saturday vs. SMU.

“They’ve made the stakes high,” Norvell said. “We talk about showcase games, this is a showcase game.”

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