The saying used to go, "Memphis State has never beat Tennessee and never will." Then 1996 happened, so now we've revised it to something with "once but never again" in there: the Vols are 20-1 all-time against the Tigers. A series that was once jeopardized by a disagreement about the much more intense basketball rivalry now finds the two teams splitting a home-and-home usually twice in every decade; this is the first meeting since 2006.
Memphis went 6-6, good enough to get blasted by South Florida in their bowl game to finish 6-7. Defense was at the root of the problem: in their 12 games against FBS competition, the Tigers gave up 30 or more points 8 times. Playing in a division with Southern Miss and East Carolina, it will always be difficult for the Tigers to breakthrough and contend for the C-USA title.
Arkelon Hall threw for 2,275 yards with a 12/7 TD/INT ratio last season, and returns to lead the offense. Curtis Steele was second team All-CUSA last season and returns at tailback, and both 6'4" Duke Calhoun and 6'8" (not a typo) Carlos Singleton are back at wide receiver to create matchup problems if Hall can get them the ball. Problem: only one starter returns on the offensive line. The new line will include UT transfer Malcolm Rawls. This group may be asked to score a bunch of points again, which they did at times last season.
Seven starters return, including all three linebackers and both corners. That means inexperience reigns up front. The best playmakers on this side of the ball are Greg Jackson at LB and Alon Starr at safety. The Tigers ranked no higher than 57th in any major defensive category last season.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
After playing Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, Tennessee gets a much needed break and takes advantage of it, and the Vols blow out the Tigers. If the Vols come into this game with 2-3 losses, this is a chance to keep building momentum, go ahead and get bowl eligible and prepare to finish strong. And if the Vols come into this game with 4-5 losses, this is a chance to salvage a postseason appearance and feel good about things for a change.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
"Only once, and never again." The worst loss the Vols could take this season would be to lose to Memphis at home. The Tigers have never won in Knoxville, they're a non-conference foe and our own personal whipping post more often than not. If Kiffin wants to build a fence around the state and the greater Memphis area (note that the Tigers have 28 kids on scholarship from the city they play in and its surrounding areas), he has to keep the Tigers buried.
Game Importance Ranking: 6.5
Not quite as important as Vanderbilt or Kentucky, but still the last game we want to lose this year. Memphis fans are hard enough to tolerate in basketball season - no reason to let that spread where it doesn't belong.