Ryan Silverfield brought up Tulane. Twice, actually.
The first mention was unprompted during the start of his press conference at American Athletic Conference media day in Arlington, Texas. He was asked about being picked to finish fourth in the league in the preseason media poll. So he wisely noted Tulane, the defending conference champion and Cotton Bowl winner, was picked to finish seventh at this time last year.
The second reference came several minutes later, at the end of his availability, in response to a question about Tulane. It was an admission as telling as anything Silverfield said about Memphis football Tuesday morning.
“Can the success be sustainable?” he wondered aloud, and then he began to go through the brief history of AAC football, from Tom Herman’s stint at Houston to UCF’s rise to Cincinnati’s transformation into a powerhouse under Luke Fickell
“Memphis, obviously at one time, was higher up and considered a national power,” Silverfield then said. “Obviously, we hope to get back there.”
Now just replace the word “hope” with need. The Tigers need to get back there. Back to the top of the conference. Back to competing for a New Year’s Six bowl game. Back to being relevant – in Memphis, let alone the rest of the country.
The truth is – or at least the truth should be – this year’s AAC preseason poll can’t be right. For so many reasons. For the sake of the program's momentum. For Silverfield. Really, for anyone who cares about Tigers football.
Last year, fourth-place SMU and Houston each had a 7-5 regular-season record. Same goes for fourth-place ECU in 2021. For the decision makers at Memphis, with a stadium renovation in the works and the winds of conference realignment swirling, that’s just about the worst scenario possible.
Because a decision looms. Three years remain on Silverfield’s contract, including this season, and there are three distinct outcomes.
The Tigers could disappoint, leading to Silverfield’s dismissal and a buyout of more than $2 million. They could compete for a conference title again, leading to a contract extension for Silverfield since it’s unusual for a college football coach to go into a season with two years left on his deal.
But Memphis could also be somewhere in between – like fourth place or, even worse, tied for eighth place like last year. Good enough to make a 10th straight bowl game but not good enough to make a dent in the local or national consciousness.
What happens then? To fire Silverfield would be unprecedented in the context of program history. But Silverfield got hired on the promise he would keep the unprecedented run Justin Fuente started and Mike Norvell elevated going.
It’d be an uncomfortable spot. Just like it got pretty uncomfortable at the end of last season, when athletic director Laird Veatch had to send that letter to boosters declaring, “‘just okay’ is not okay.”
So it’s best for everyone involved if we just avoided that altogether. If this fourth season under Silverfield is the one in which he definitively proves to be the right or wrong choice for this job. If the media members who voted in the AAC’s preseason poll have, as so many have claimed before, no idea what they’re talking about.
Fourth place, in this case, might as well be last place. It solves nothing for Memphis football.
(Full disclosure: The Commercial Appeal did not vote in this year’s poll)
The good news is all of it’s in play, including Memphis pulling off something akin to what Tulane did a year ago.
“We’ve lost basically every close game that we’ve had the last two seasons,” quarterback Seth Henigan lamented, and the sentiment could mean a couple things.
The Tigers were 0-4 in games decided by single digits after starting last season with a 4-1 record. That’s either an indictment on Silverfield or an indication Memphis could be closer to recapturing its previous self than the recent record suggests. This sort of uncertainty permeates throughout the roster after another transfer-heavy offseason.
Henigan is back for a third year as starter, but very few of his weapons from last season came back with him. Then again, those departing receivers – outside of tight end Caden Prieskorn (Ole Miss) – weren’t the most dangerous bunch anyways. The schedule is also favorable, with a weakened conference and all the toughest opponents except Missouri at home. But it also features a three-week gauntlet in the first month or so, beginning with Missouri (in St. Louis), and followed by Boise State and Tulane.
So the predictions outside of Memphis are muted. The consensus seems to be better than last year but still not as good as the Tigers once were.
“We obviously have not earned the right to be picked much higher,” Silverfield said. “We understand where we need this program to be.”
Indeed. Anywhere but fourth.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: For Memphis football and Ryan Silverfield, AAC poll can't be right