We should be angrier at Missouri right now.
It all but stole this Saturday’s Memphis football game from Memphis.
This game should be here. At (hopefully) soon-to-be renovated Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. That’s what the original home-and-home series contract said. Except the contract was signed in 2010, and the buyout clause was only $250,000.
So Missouri ducked a road game that didn’t look nearly as tough 13 years ago, when Memphis was one of the worst programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. It threatened to get rid of the game altogether. The only recourse Memphis had on such short notice was to play Missouri in St. Louis for up to $1 million.
“We lost a home game,” Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield said. “They’re paying us to play there.”
It means their coach (Eli Drinkwitz), who could be on the hot seat if this isn’t a successful season, got a leg up on the Memphis coach, who could be on the hot seat if this isn’t a successful season, by taking advantage of Memphis. In different times, there might be more over-the-top fan outrage this week. The kind that makes college football perhaps the most passionate of sports. The kind of disrespect with which Memphis usually thrives.
But that also underscores why this latest SEC test for Memphis is as important as any in recent memory. Memphis, despite being off to a 3-0 start, has no buzz at the moment. The momentum from the 2019 Cotton Bowl run, from the Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell eras, feels like a memory. The investment, both financially and emotionally, seems to be in a dangerous place.
Memphis has gone eight straight home games with an announced crowd of less than 30,000. It’s the longest such streak since the program went 11 consecutive home games below 30,000 from 2000 to 2002. That’s right — this didn’t happen under Norvell, Fuente or Larry Porter.
The most straightforward path to reversing that trend, to getting more people at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, leads through The Dome at America’s Center. Beating Missouri, one week after Missouri knocked off then-No. 15 Kansas State, is exactly the spark this program needs. Beating Missouri, ahead of the two best home games on this year’s schedule — Boise State and Tulane — is exactly how Memphis can generate some excitement.
“It’s an opportunity as a Group of Five program to put on for who we are and show that we’re just as good as the teams in the Power Five and the SEC,” quarterback Seth Henigan said this week, and it feels especially appetizing if Missouri quarterback Brady Cook can't play.
For the sake of this season’s goals, Memphis doesn’t need to win Saturday. It doesn’t need to beat Boise State next week, either. Heck, if Memphis were to also lose to Tulane after its open week, it still wouldn’t end hopes of a run to the American Athletic Conference championship game. But it would put an end to some optimism.
Perception is why this game matters.
This crucial three-game stretch, the toughest three-game stretch of the season, is going to determine how this group is perceived. Not by the 25,000 or so die-hards who showed up to the first two games. But by those who have fallen off the wagon, the ones who made last year the least-attended Memphis football season in almost a decade.
They’ll be watching carefully Saturday to see if this team, the one slighted by Missouri, might be different from the past two.
“Is there a little sense of ‘You didn’t recruit me?’ . . . Is there a little sense of, 'Now’s my chance to prove what I can do?' ” Memphis offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey wondered aloud this week. “Yeah, I think that’s there.”
At least someone's a little angry.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on X: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis football vs Missouri: Why the Mizzou game is in St Louis