Will Mississippi State be the next memorable moment in Memphis football's rise? | Giannotto

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Isaac Bruce will be there to celebrate his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. The life of the late Danton Barto will be commemorated. Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren are expected to make their first public appearances in Memphis as members of the Tigers men’s basketball team. New women’s basketball coach Katrina Merriweather will be on hand, and there might even be a cowbell or two, despite the home team's best efforts

It’s setting up to be a memorable Saturday afternoon at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

And then there is the main event – Mississippi State’s first visit to Memphis, and its first football game against the Tigers, in a decade. It's another chance for Memphis to take out a Power Five conference opponent and draw attention to what has been accomplished here recently.

Let’s be clear: Memphis doesn’t need to beat Mississippi State to have a successful 2021 season. The Tigers aren’t favored, and they still have an American Athletic Conference title to chase, regardless of the outcome.

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But there’s also a clear pattern during this wonderful era of Memphis football, a trend that transcends who is playing quarterback or who is coaching. All of the best seasons of the past eight years have featured a memorable encounter with an opponent from the kind of league the Tigers would love to join in the next round of conference realignment. 

The path to a shared conference title under Justin Fuente in 2014 began with a dramatic 42-35 loss at UCLA that former offensive lineman Gabe Kuhn described last month as “the night we realized we could.”

The 9-0 start and ascension to No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings during the 2015 season came about thanks to that monumental win over then-No. 13 Ole Miss. 

October 17, 2015 - Memphis football fans rush the field after the Tigers defeated Ole Miss, 37-24, at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

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Under Mike Norvell, the road to the program’s first AAC championship game appearance in 2017 was highlighted by a win over then-No. 25 UCLA in the second game of the season.

The program’s first outright conference title since 1971, and that historic run to the Cotton Bowl in 2019, began with another win over Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl.

Now, it’s coach Ryan Silverfield’s turn. Here’s a chance to score a defining win, even if a loss won’t necessarily define this season.  

This would be bigger than the streak-busting wins over UCF and Florida Atlantic in the Montgomery Bowl during Silverfield’s bizarre, pandemic-influenced first year on the job. 

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For one, Memphis hasn’t beaten Mississippi State since Bruce was catching passes in a Tigers uniform in 1993. The Tigers haven’t beaten their neighbors from Starkville at the Liberty Bowl since 1988. 

But this game also will occur in front of the largest Memphis football crowd in two years, a community gathering that would turn into a community celebration if Silverfield and company can pull off what his predecessors did.

There’s an opportunity to deliver a tone-setting and cathartic reminder to the rest of the country that the entertaining brand Memphis established during its rise from irrelevance isn’t going anywhere, even if UCF, Cincinnati and Houston are (at least temporarily) leaving the Tigers behind in the AAC. 

This will be all the more striking if it happens against Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, considered one of the great offensive innovators in modern college football. Because it’s Memphis, not Mississippi State, that enters Saturday with the nation’s best offense, even a true freshman (Seth Henigan) at quarterback.

Memphis Tigers Head Coach Ryan Silverfield leads his team on to the field to take on the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark. On Sept. 11, 2021.

Those offensive exploits are part of the Tigers’ identity among college football fans at large, but Silverfield’s identity as a head coach is still largely undefined. 

That's because of his relative inexperience, and the presence of record-setting QB Brady White during the odd opening season of his tenure, and the fact that Memphis has played only an FCS team and a bad Arkansas State defense thus far. It’s also tied to what Henigan becomes, and the early returns inspire optimism.

Silverfield isn’t being asked to resurrect a program like Fuente did, and he isn’t calling all the plays like Norvell did. His goals are related to maintaining a standard, not manufacturing a new one. He operates more like a CEO, and this year’s roster feels a lot more like it’s his than a year ago after all the transfers in and out of the team that coincided with the NCAA’s more lenient rules.   

But it’s games like this one, where Memphis shows off its prized basketball recruits because there are so many people there to show them off to, against an opponent that players like Bruce remember almost 30 years later when they return, that resonate so much more than a cowbell.

They matter the most when forming impressions. Whether they're about a coach or his team or the progress that’s being made.

So Saturday might not define this season, but it will help define what this season might become.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto