AutoZone Liberty Bowl win shows Memphis is ready to join a Power Five Conference

Steven McCash makes a compelling case for the University of Memphis joining a Power 5 conference the next time the realignment carousel begins to spin.

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The 2024 college sports season is going to find a lot of schools in new conferences, creating new rivalries as a result of conference realignment that has been going on for a number of years. In the past decade, we have seen the Big East lose teams to the ACC and as a result the American Athletic Conference was born, consisting of Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, Temple and UConn. The AAC brought in former Conference USA schools SMU, UCF, Memphis, and Houston.

In 2014, The Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers while the ACC added Louisville and the American brought in East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa. That year also saw moves by Conference USA and the Sun Belt. There were a few other moves by smaller conferences over the next few years but it was 2023 when things begin to ramp up once again. The Big 12 added American Athletic Conference programs Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, as well as BYU. In an answer to the American being raided, it responded by inviting Conference USA members Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, Rice, North Texas and UTSA to the mix. Not to be left out, Conference USA added New Mexico State, Liberty, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State.

The biggest, most successful conference in all the land is making big moves that go into effect in 2024. The SEC is adding now former Big 12 members Texas and Oklahoma to their dominating list of members. With this move one cannot help but feel even worse for Vanderbilt. The Pac-12 as we know it will stop to exist in 2024 as UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Washington join the Big 10. Other Pac-12 members making a big conference realignment splash include Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah. That group of schools is joining the Big 12 as Stanford and Cal travel across country to join the ACC. That leaves Oregon State and Washington State as programs without a home for now. 

One school that has been fighting, and at times, downright begging, to join a stronger conference is the University of Memphis. Before 2003 when coach Tommy West led the Tigers to their first bowl game in 32 years, the program had only 10 seasons above .500 during that span. In the 20 seasons since they were victorious in the New Orleans Bowl, Memphis has won 10 games four times, been invited to a bowl game in 10 straight seasons, and even represented the Group of Five in the Cotton Bowl in 2019. 

The team crossed the 10-win threshold this season after defeating the Big 12’s Iowa State Cyclones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Memphis looked like a team upset they did not get the call in the last round of conference realignment. The Tigers entered the game as an overwhelming underdog and defeated the Power 5 team by 10 points in the game. Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF were all plucked away by the Big 12 from the AAC last year leaving Memphis behind. The three departing programs all finished the 2023 football season with losing records, only winning six conference games combined. The victory over a school like Iowa State could be a turning point for the Memphis athletic department as it regroups and tries again to make the big leap to a Power 5 conference. 

The football program has tried to beef up its non-conference schedule over the last decade to show it is willing to play anyone and anywhere. The Tigers have taken on some of college footballs top programs over the last 20 years including UCLA, Ole Miss, BYU, Kansas, Auburn, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Boise State. Florida State, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Boise State are some of the powerful opponents Memphis can look forward to facing over the next 5-7 years. 

In addition to facing upper echelon teams, the school has also built a state of the art training facility for its athletes that rivals the facilities of a lot of Power Five programs. Thanks to Tennessee governor Bill Lee, the university was awarded $120 million to renovate the 58 year-old Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium the Tigers football team calls home. Fred Smith, founder and chairman of FedEx, announced a $50 million donation in November that is tagged to go towards the upgrades and the school has declared they will hold a fundraising campaign to match the Smith donation giving the nearly 60 year-old stadium $220 million in renovation funds. 

The timeline to start construction is soon now that the 2023 season is over and plans are to add premium seating options on the stadium’s west side, family boxes to the north side, party decks to the south side, retrofit the east side suite tower, and to create a ‘halo space’ surrounding the stadium. The renovations will easily bring some much needed life to the building as well as making the Memphis football program a more attractive lure for a new home in a larger conference. 

The football team’s success in the last 20 years is not the only attractive selling point for the university in their quest to move to a new conference. The school’s men’s basketball program has been performing at an elite level since the 1970s. As of this writing, the Tiger’s have the 26th highest winning percentage in NCAA history and have made the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament 28 times. The team is coached my NBA and University of Memphis great Inferno “Penny” Hardaway. Under his guidance, the 2023-24 Tigers sit at 11-2 going in to conference play and have wins over four top 25 teams so far this season. 

The Memphis Tigers are one of seven men’s college basketball teams that share an arena with an NBA team. The Tigers and Grizzlies have been arena mates since the NBA team moved from Vancouver in 2001. Playing in a state of the art arena is a great recruiting tool for a program and should be a great selling point during the next round of conference realignment that only a handful of schools can use. It seems safe to say that Seton Hall, St. John’s, Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova are looking to leave the Big East and I’m pretty sure no one is knocking on the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s door. 

Memphis has world-class facilities and consistently winning programs in the two biggest revenue making sports. In addition to football and men’s basketball the school is home to  men’s and women’s soccer teams that both made the NCAA tournament this year. This was the third straight appearance for the women’s team and back-to-back appearances for the men. Although it doesn’t garner the attention that some of the other sports do, one cannot turn an eye to the success the University of Memphis’ Pom Squad has had the last 35-plus years. The dance team holds 15 national titles including nine consecutive titles from 1986-1994. 

It is well documented that the city of Memphis as a whole has a bad reputation due to its crime issues. The city ranks at the top of numerous violent and non-violent statistics, but the continued success of the school’s athletic programs as well as the freshly inaugurated city mayor can start to turn this sleeping giant of a city around. Ford will be opening its $5.6 billion electric vehicle campus, Blue Oval City, just outside of Memphis in 2025 that is creating 6,000 jobs and is set to help greatly with some of the poverty issues the community struggles with. Memphis is also home to three Fortune 500 companies in FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper. 

The University of Memphis and the city together have so much to offer a Power 5 conference and it is only a matter of time before the next round of college realignment happens. With the unrest in the ACC after the Florida State was snubbed from the College Football Playoff, it may happen sooner than later. I would love nothing more than to hear ACC Commissioner James J. Phillips pick up the phone and just like the great singer Johnny Rivers say, “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee.”

Steven McCash is the Lead Music Writer and Utility Man for SoBros Network. Steven is the host of the ‘Drinking With…’ podcast, and the pioneer of New Music Friday, highlighting each week’s new releases in the world of music in addition to the occasional live show review. He also pitches in as a Nashville lifestyle writer and football analyst (hence the ‘Utility Man’ title). Follow on Twitter: @MC_Cash75

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