Longtime regional foes Southern Miss and Memphis represent the closest approximation to a rivalry in the cobbled-together, post-Louisville Conference USA solar system, but the hard rain is falling on two of the league's most consistent programs this decade: Memphis is 1-7, winless against C-USA and, in fact, all Bowl Subdivision opponents; Southern Miss has lost three of four, capped by its stunning benefaction of the East Division lead to East Carolina last week. Not in more than a decade has the game's "Black and Blue" tag proved such a snug fit for both teams.
For the most dour yet of his weekly conversations with a blogger, reporter or other insider of Southern Miss' upcoming opponent, SMQ sat down with Frank Murtaugh of the River City's alternative weekly, The Memphis Flyer, and its sister mag, Memphis Magazine, over seared scallop Rockefellar, roasted red pepper flan and mint gelee with goat cheese Hollandaise and truffle oil to discuss the transfactual efficacy of the generative mechanism of structures, the torture of existence weighed against the horror of non-being and phenomenological analysis as a privileged locus of disclosure of the horizontal structure of human experience.
Frank Murtaugh at any point other than a recent Memphis game
SMQ: Memphis has won once, against a I-AA team, after four straight bowl games. Is it as bad as it looks?
FM: It's pretty bad. Consider 2006 in the life of Tiger coach Tommy West. Bypass surgery in February ("At 51 years old - barely out of my 40s - what am I doing sitting up here in a hospital with my chest split open.") In April he sees the greatest player he'll ever coach (DeAngelo Williams) snapped up in the first round of the NFL draft. Now, as we close in on Thanksgiving, he's lost on a Hail Mary pass from - sound the violins - Arkansas State and has yet to beat a Division I-A opponent. Add to this a violent injury bug running through the Memphis defense, not to mention the sudden firing of his defensive coordinator three games into the season, and you have a prescription for West woes.
SMQ: DeAngelo Williams was the unrelenting scourge of Southern Miss and every other defense he faced for three years, but no one seemed to expect the fall from his departure to be so dramatic. In that sense, is it possible the three-time league Player of the Year was actually somewhat underrated?
FM: DeAngelo - for a program like Memphis - was once in several lifetimes. Choose your cliches: lightning in a bottle, player of the century, etc. He was a player who would have excelled anywhere, from Florida State to Southern Cal. He just so happened to like his Mid-South roots, and embraced the challenge of proving naysayers wrong by achieving his goals at "little ol'" Memphis.
Once he'd played his last college game - last December's Motor City Bowl - every Memphis coach and player said the same thing: when a player like DeAngelo Williams is lost, everyone else in the program has to step up. Trouble is, how MUCH must each player step up? They're per-game rushing average (almost 190 yards a year ago) has been practically cut in half. That's a lot of missed first downs, a lot more possessions on the field for the defense. I don't think DeAngelo was underrated (his uniform number will be retired before this Sunday's game), but the domino effect of just how much his departure would change the 2006 team was indeed underestimated.
SMQ: Continuing the theme of high profile departures, how much of an impact can be traced to Joe Lee Dunn's sudden exit?
FM: My feeling is that West's firing of Dunn was precisely the right thing for the Memphis program, long term . . . And exactly wrong for any hopes of success this fall. However predictable Dunn's scheme may have been (and it sure didn't fool mighty East Carolina), this year's players charged with executing the plan UNDERSTOOD it. So, to ask a unit to reboot itself - before Tennessee came to town, no less - is some kind of challenge. And again, with so many defensive players hurt, West just doesn't have the horses for this kind of transition.
SMQ: True or False: Southern Miss, coming off a humbling loss to perennial punching bag East Carolina in which it failed to crack 200 yards total offense at home, is ripe for defeat by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
FM: I'd like to think the Black-and-Blue Game is always up for grabs, but the fact is Southern Miss is a standard the U of M must still aim for. (I've argued for years that it's the Golden Eagles - now with 12 straight winning seasons - and not the likes of Tennessee, Arkansas, or Ole Miss, that Memphis fans should use as a barometer for their program's growth.) Winning last year in Hattiesburg was a huge achievement for the Tigers; hadn't happened since 1984. Having played every year since 1952 (except for 1980; who knows?), this should be THE game marked on the Memphis calendar every fall. And that's whether or not USM is on a downswing, ripe for defeat or otherwise.
Sunday night's game will be the Tigers' bowl game. National television. Williams in town for his pregame ceremony. A chance for a third straight win in this long series. It's tough to pick the Memphis Tigers in any contest this season, but this might be the one.
['True' or 'False' would have been acceptable. - ed. Answer the question, Frank! ]
SMQ: Sunday? Why?
FM: The most powerful four letters in college football: ESPN. For the life of me, I can't escape college football. In trying to find an update on baseball's free-agent filings last night, I stumbled upon a Tuesday night(!) game. I think SMU was playing. Or was it a sorry post-World Series nightmare of things to come? For the love of Pete, let's get back to playing on Saturday afternoons (and Thanksgiving Friday). I'll be at the Liberty Bowl Sunday night, but my mind will be dreading Monday morning.
When Gilmore calls, you answer when he says you answer.
SMQ: USM fans superficially know Memphis from semi-annual visits to play the Tigers and increasingly rare Liberty Bowl trips, but what's a traveler to do when Graceland, Beale Street and The Rendezvous lose their cache?
FM: Lose their cache?! Dry ribs at the Rendezvous? Finish your order, and get back in line! If you haven't seen the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, you simply have to. Only "museum" on the planet that will have your toes tapping as you walk through. You haven't seen luxury till you've seen Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac. There's also the National Civil Rights Museum (located at the Lorraine Motel downtown, where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968). Oppposite end of the emotional spectrum from Stax, but a powerful and unique experience worth at least a couple of hours.
A few affordable restaurants worth looking up if you can't get the barbecue out of your teeth: the Cupboard, Gus's Fried Chicken (will make your knees weak), Dixie Café, Blue Plate Café, and the pub that demands your gameday presence on a barstool: Huey's.
SMQ agrees with the immortal cache of Rendezvous dry rub. Memphis and Southern Miss kick off ignominiously at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.