On September 4, the University of Memphis will kickoff its 119th season of college football against Nichols State in Liberty Bowl Stadium. After compiling a record of 8-3 in his inaugural season, Coach Ryan Silverfield will attempt to maintain the program’s run of recent success while establishing his philosophy with a young and mostly inexperienced new team.
Silverfield has been a part of possibly the best seven-year run in Tiger football history. Since 2014, Memphis has compiled a 65-26 record, averaging 9.2 wins and 3.7 losses a season. I say possibly because Coach Billy Murphy’s teams from 1960-66 finished with a combined record of 50-16, which was good for 7.1 wins and 2.3 losses per year.
Long-suffering Tiger football fans don’t need to be reminded of how horrible the program has been for most of the 55 years between these two eras. I believe we are past that. Thanks to the frustrated pleas of Tommy West, which led to the foundation Justin Fuente built, the offensive identity that Mike Norvell added, and the stability that Silverfield inherited.
Throughout Tiger football history, there have been many great plays, players, games and seasons. And we have had our share of outstanding coaches and competitive teams.
So, in anticipation of the upcoming season, I wanted to celebrate the ten best that ever wore the Blue and Gray. Although five of these teams weren’t invited to Bowl games, they all played hard, beat good teams, and left it all on the field for the city and their University.
10.) Year: 2004, Record: 8-4 (5-3), Coach: Tommy West
Coach West’s fourth year saw him make his second consecutive bowl game and tie for second place in Conference USA. Led by Danny Wimprine and DeAngelo Williams, the Tigers finished 10th in the nation in scoring, averaging 35.4 points per game. They beat Ole Miss in Oxford and made the GMAC Bowl, where they lost to Bowling Green 52-35. Williams finished the season as the nation’s leader in TDs, rush TDs, TDs from scrimmage, and yards from scrimmage, while finishing second in rushing yards and total points.
9.) Year: 1983, Record 6-4-1, Coach: Rex Dockery
After winning just two games in his first two seasons, Rex Dockery provided Tiger faithful with their first winning campaign since 1977. Memphis State entered the season as the worst offensive team in college football, but QB Danny Sparkman led the turnaround. Aided by skill players Punkin Williams, Jeff Womack, and Derrick Crawford, the Tigers scored almost 25 points per game and only gave up 18, fueled by Percy Nabors’ and Greg Sanders’ 11 interceptions. They beat Ole Miss to open the season and ended by winning four games on the road against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
8.) Year: 1973, Record 8-3, Coach: Fred Pancoast
Fred Pancoast coached three years before he left for Vanderbilt, and his ’73 team was the best. His balanced offense featuring names like David Fowler and Joe Bruner at QB, Dornell Harris and Cliff Taylor at RB, and Bobby Ward at WR, complimented a defense that was 28th in the country in points allowed. This was the first Tiger team to ever beat Ole Miss in the state of Mississippi and finished with wins over Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati.
7.) Year: 2017, Record 10-3 (7-1), Coach: Mike Norvell
In his second season at Memphis, Mike Norvell cemented his reputation as one of the best offensive coaches in the country. The Tigers finished 2nd in the NCAA in scoring, averaging 45.5 points, and gained 532 yards per game. The Tigers were led by Riley Ferguson’s 4,257 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, Darrell Henderson’s 1,154 rushing yards, and All-American Anthony Miller’s school record 96 catches, 1,462 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Memphis climbed as high as #16 by beating #25 UCLA, #25 Navy, and rolling through the conference, scoring 70 points twice. However, they finished the year ranked 25th after losing to UCF in the AAC Championship game and Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl.
6.) Year: 1962, Record: 8-1, Coach: Billy Murphy
In 1962, Coach Billy Murphy’s Tiger team was third in the country, scoring 29 points per game, and was tenth in the NCAA in scoring defense, allowing opponents just 7 points per contest. After losing to 6th ranked Ole Miss on the road, the Tigers finished the season on a seven-game winning streak. They beat six-win teams Louisville and North Texas and hammered Mississippi State on the road. Two of their wins, against The Citadel and Texas Arlington, came by a combined score of 110-13.
5.) Year: 2014, Record: 10-3 (7-1), Coach: Justin Fuente
The peak of the Justin Fuente era culminated in the Miami Beach
Brawl Bowl against BYU and a number 25 final ranking. It was the first time the program had won 10 games in a season since 1938, when the school was known as West Tennessee State Normal, and the first bowl win since the 2005 Motor City Bowl. However, while Paxton Lynch, Brandon Hayes, and the rest of the offense were scoring 36 points per game, the team’s real strength was the defense. Led by Tank Jakes (6 sacks) and Bobby McCain (5 interceptions), the squad accounted for 29 sacks, 25 turnovers, and 3 TDs, and finished 11th in opponent’s points per game.
4.) Year: 1969, Record: 8-2 (4-0), Coach: Billy Murphy
Coach Murphy’s 12th season at Memphis State would be the last time he would win 8 games, and one of only two times the program would win that many for another 34 years. In the sophomore season of the Missouri Valley Conference, Danny Pierce, Paul Gowen, and Jay McCoy lit up the league to claim their second consecutive conference championship. The Tigers scored 32 points per game and beat seven-win North Texas and six-win Florida State. They finished the season by dropping 69 on Louisville in a 50-point beatdown.
3.) Year: 2003, Record: 9-4 (5-3), Coach: Tommy West
DeAngelo Williams’ sophomore season saw him take a leap that helped propel the Tigers to another level. He would earn the first of three straight C-USA Offensive Player of the Year awards by rushing for 1,430 yards and 10 touchdowns. Danny Wimprine threw for a career-high 3,174 yards, Maurice Avery had 742 yards receiving with 8 TDS, Stephen Gostkowski was automatic, and the defense allowed opponents just 19 points per game. A win over Ole Miss and a stretch of conference games where they beat teams by an average of 23 points led to the program’s first postseason berth since 1971. Memphis completed the journey by defeating North Texas in the New Orleans Bowl 27-17.
2.) Year: 2019, Record 12-2 (7-1), Coach: Mike Norvell
After a disappointing first season with transfer QB Brady White, Memphis bounced back with arguably the best year in program history. White threw for 4,014 yards and 33 touchdowns, and freshman sensation Kenny Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns as the Tigers capped a four-year stretch with more wins (38) than any team in school history. They claimed their first outright conference championship since 1969 and won the AAC West for the third straight year.
With a three-point loss on the road at Temple as the only blemish on their record (Magnifico made the catch!), the Tigers climbed as high as 15th in the country and won a berth in the Cotton Bowl by beating Cincinnati in the AAC Championship game. Memphis lined up against Penn State, and despite Brady White’s 454 yards passing and only trailing by 5 with seven minutes to go, the Tigers lost 53-39.
1.) Year: 1963, Record: 9-0-1, Coach: Billy Murphy
While the team at number two on this list won more games in four years than any other in Tiger history, Coach Murphy’s 1963 squad wrapped their four-year run with a 33-5 record. Murphy won National Coach of the Year, and Memphis State finished 14th in the polls. The defense was outstanding, finishing second in the NCAA by allowing a measly 5.2 points per game.
The Tigers beat seven-win Mississippi State, five-win Southern Mississippi on the road and finished in a 0-0 tie with then 2nd ranked Ole Miss, who would finish in the top 7. Memphis State was led by Dave Casinelli, who was the first Tiger to lead the NCAA in a statistical category and should have been a Heisman candidate. QB Russell Volmer and Casinelli were instrumental in the four-year run and primarily responsible for the program’s longest unbeaten streak at 17 games.
Casinelli finished the 1963 season first in the NCAA in rush attempts, rushing yards (1,016), rushing TDs (14), plays from scrimmage, and overall TDs. He finished second in TDs from scrimmage and total points and third in yards from scrimmage. When DeAngelo was snubbed (for more on that, read this), at least he was invited to the ceremony. Unfortunately, Casinelli wasn’t even in the top 10 finalists.
Here’s hoping that I can revisit this list in a few years and add a team coached by Ryan Silverfield. Judging by these 10 teams, he has a high bar to cross. All he has to do is coach a potential Heisman winner, institute a top-ranked offense, recruit a record-setting QB or RB, only lose one or two games a season, win the conference, and qualify for a New Year’s 6 bowl game.
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