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Can Memphis Make National Noise With a Win Over Ole Miss?

Memphis is 5-0, riding a 12-game winning streak, and yet still seeking the national attention it deserves.

The Tigers have yet to crack the AP Top 25 despite finishing 25th in the poll last year and not losing a game this season. Memphis has one of the best offenses in the nation led by the best quarterback few people are talking about in Paxton Lynch.

But, like Rodney Dangerfield, the Tigers get no respect.

Such is the life of a Group of Five team. Respect isn’t given because of brand recognition or conference pedigree; it is earned. Memphis has a chance to earn it Saturday.

The Tigers welcome the 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels to the Liberty Bowl this weekend, and a win would finally launch Memphis into the national spotlight. It would also be a boon for recruiting and give Tigers fans bragging rights over their regional rival as the schools are only about 80 miles apart.

It would be yet another chance for Commissioner Mike Aresco and the American to proclaim the existence of the “Power Six,” and another bullet point on the Memphis resume for potential Power Five conference suitors looking to expand.

But don’t tell any of that to head coach Justin Fuente, who had this to say during his weekly press conference:

“This is the next game for us. Our kids will be excited to play and it’s a tremendous challenge against a great opponent but it counts as one. It counts as one non-conference win or loss. Anything more than that is a little much for us right now. The bottom line is, when the game is over six days later we have to be ready to play at Tulsa regardless of what happens. That does not mean we aren’t going to gear up and prepare and do everything we can to be ready Saturday. But it’s one game in a 12-game season.”

Fuente says that because he has to preach that to his players, but he has to be aware of what winning this game would mean for his program. His players certainly know they need to win on this type of stage to validate the team’s recent run of success.

”Honestly, every week we’re trying to prove something,” Memphis receiver Phillip Mayhue said. ”We’re just trying to prove that we’re basically here. We’re not a slouch. We worked hard and we’re going to prove each and every week that hard work pays off.”

That hard work Mayhue talked about has paid off statistically, as the Tigers are currently 4th and 8th in the country in scoring and total offense, respectively, averaging 47.8 points and 541.2 yards per game.

”It’s a quality, quality football team and they’re playing with great confidence,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. ”And they have what a lot of us desire in a really sound, good quarterback. He’s one of the better ones I’ve seen on film.”

Speaking of the quarterback, Lynch really has been fantastic this season. He’s completing 70.5 percent of his passes and has thrown 10 touchdowns without an interception. He’s currently third in the country in quarterback rating and second in yards per attempt.

With all of that said, winning this game will be a challenge with little margin of error for Memphis.

Ole Miss ranks 5th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 46.8 points per game, and 11th in total offense, averaging 527.8 yards per game. Quarterback Chad Kelly, like Lynch, also ranks highly in several statistical categories, and has thrown 14 touchdowns while adding four more on the ground. Kelly benefits from a solid receiving corps, headlined by Laquon Treadwell who has caught 35 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns.

“Obviously we have a tremendous challenge in front of us,” Fuente said. “We are going to play a fantastic football team with great players and a coaching staff that has done a great job of putting them in position to have success. Our kids will be excited to go play in the game.”

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