The Tigers are working furiously ahead of their season opener against Ole Miss. (Photo: Matthew Smith/UofM Athletics)

While the University of Memphis and Ole Miss are not conference rivals, they are certainly regional rivals, each seeking bragging rights over the other.

That rivalry will be on full display Saturday, as the Tigers kickoff their season hosting Ole Miss at the Liberty Bowl. Fan excitement is bubbling and a nationwide television audience will have a chance to watch on ABC

The two programs are heading in different directions to start the season. Expectations are high for the Tigers, who are favored to win every game this season. Meanwhile, the Rebels are still recovering from an NCAA scandal under former coach Hugh Freeze.

Big changes for both schools

Memphis only had seven seniors on the team last year. Unfortunately, two of those seniors were their most productive offensive players: Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard, both now in the NFL. That wasn’t the only turnover for the Tigers; seven coaches left the program for other opportunities with Power 5 programs.

The Rebels also had some turnover. The Rebels graduated 18 seniors last spring, and six made it to the NFL: Greg Little (OL – Carolina), AJ Brown (WR/DK – Titans), DK Metcalf (WR – Seattle), Dawson Knox (TE -Buffalo), Javon Patterson (C – Indianapolis) and Ken Webster (DB – New England).

The Rebels will start Matt Corral at quarterback under new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez. Rodriquez was the former head coach of the Arizona Wildcats, also serving at Michigan and West Virginia. Rodriguez is known for a wide-open offense. Corral saw limited action last season. In four appearances, Corral completed 16 of 22 attempts for 239 and threw two touchdowns.

New Faces in Tiger Stripes

Kenny Gainwell is not really new, but he will get some significant snaps this season. Gainwell benefits from a new NCAA rule that allows a player maintain their redshirt eligibility if they play in four games or less. Gainwell played in four games and had six receptions for 52 yards and rushed for 91 yards and scored a touchdown on only four carries.

Former Whitehaven standout Kylan Watkins has been a staple on the practice field, which should result in him getting plenty of action this season. Watkins transferred in from UT Martin and sat out last season, but has more than 4,000 all-purpose yards his last two years in high school.

Treveon Samuel, a graduate transfer who played at Louisville, is a big back that can also play in the slot position. While at Louisville, Samuel also was known for great kicks returns, and had 1.628 all-purpose yards in his three years at Louisville.

More of the Same

Brady White will get the start at quarterback for the Tigers this season. Photo: Matthew Smith/UofM Athletics)

Brady White returns as the Tigers’ signal-caller. White, a red-shirt junior, threw for 3,296 yards and two 300-yard passing games. White won the starting job just before the start of the season last year. White’s first season was respectable if not stellar, but he appears to have more confidence and control of the offense. He’s also gotten stronger, overcoming one of the biggest complaints about his play last season.

Patrick Taylor could have put his name in the NFL draft last season, but he wanted to come back to college to complete some unfinished business. Taylor, the senior from Humble, Texas, rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and has 2,534 rushing yards on 458 carries and 31 touchdowns. He plans to continue the impact Memphis running backs have made in the NFL.

Coach Speak

“We know it takes work and execution. You can wish for it to happen, but you have to go make it happen. You’ve got to prepare every single day, prepare at a high level to show that on game day. I think these kids are looking forward to the challenge.”
– Mike Norvell
Photo: Matthew Smith/UofM Athletics)

Neither coach wants any of their players to create any headlines that could spark the other team.

“Any time you get the opportunity to host an SEC opponent there is going to be a great deal of buzz and excitement,” said Tigers Head Coach Mike Norvell. “That’s definitely the case here in Memphis. Everywhere I go in the community you can tell all Memphians are excited about some Tiger football. We’re excited about kicking off the season here at home.”

The Rebels are coming off of NCAA bowl ban and return to full scholarship strength this season. Memphis has been a prime recruiting ground for Ole Miss.

“We are coming out of camp very healthy. Excited about going to Memphis. That is a huge fan base for us,” said Ole Miss Head Coach Matt Luke.

The game kicks off at 11 a.m. on ABC. The gates will open two hours before kickoff and the traditional Tiger walk will occur at 8:30. If you use DirecTV or AT&T Uverse, you might need to make other plans to watch — an ongoing contract dispute between AT&T and Nexstar has kept ABC programming off of WATN’s Local24.