The University of Memphis Tigers suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Mississippi State Bulldogs Saturday night. Red-shirt sophomore Cannon Smith started his first game at quarterback for the Tigers, but was pulled after just three series in favor of true freshman Ryan Williams. First year head coach Larry Porter's sudden switch to Williams has prompted several to question if Smith was starting because of talent or to appease his father, Federal Express founder and University of Memphis benefactor Fred Smith.
Fred Smith and Memphis
It would be hard to blame Porter if he did start Cannon to please his father. The elder Smith is worth an estimated $1.3 billion and his company employs over 10,000 Memphians. The company's name appears on several buildings around the city, including the University's basketball and baseball stadiums.
CBSSports.com reported in June that Smith was offering as much as $10 million a year to any BCS conference that would invite the Tigers to join their conference. While the football program recently completed a new practice field and is in the process of building a new weight room, they could always use a FedEx football stadium or indoor practice facility. It would be foolish for a new coach to alienate his largest donor during a season when the Tigers were not even expected to compete in Conference USA.
For all the speculation about his father being responsible for his starting role, Cannon Smith is no slouch. He was a heralded prospect coming out of Olive Branch High School, being named to the US Army All-American game. Smith originally committed to play for Ole Miss and then head coach Ed Orgeron. Instead of playing for the Rebels, he attended Hargave Military Academy and eventually signed to play for the University of Miami. Smith transferred to Tigers from Miami in the Fall of 2009 after appearing in just one game for the Hurricanes.
Smith and Williams entered spring practice to a wide open quarterback race. The Tigers' roster also included the incumbent Tyler Bass who started three games the previous season, community college transfer Andy Summerlin, and red-shirt freshman Will Gilchrist. Summerlin suffered a shoulder injury during spring practice.
Performance at the annual Blue-Gray Game and reports from scrimmages seem to provide the most compelling evidence that there might be external factors being used to determine the Tigers' starting quarterback. Smith finished the game with just 59 yards and an interception while completing fewer than half of his passes. Williams was named the MVP of the game after throwing for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Bass finished with 91 yards and two touchdowns, while Gilchrist completed all seven passes he threw including a touchdown.
Porter officially closed scrimmages to the media, but the Commercial Appeal reported that scrimmage statistics provided by the University's sports information department favored Williams. The differences in performance might be as simple as Smith faced tougher competition working primarily with the first team than Williams did playing with the second team.
Heading into the Mississippi State game, Porter had to decide between two untested quarterbacks. For either quarterback, it was to be their first start in an extremely hostile road environment. Over 56,000 cowbell ringing fans packed Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Smith at least had the advantages of appearing in a game for Miami and two full seasons of practice with Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
While he had a slight experience edge, Smith expectedly showed signs of being nervous missing several receivers early and failing to get a single first down. Williams appeared more comfortable when he entered the game, but was he truly more poised or was it the fact that the Tigers were already down 14 points? Playing from behind with nothing to lose can often reduce the pressure players feel.
Williams looked good for spurts, but he only managed six first downs for the game and threw two interceptions. There were also several plays where it appeared he could have picked up first downs with his legs. Instead he forced throws or took a sack. Smith reentered the game in the fourth quarter and led the Tigers to their only touchdown in the waning minutes. Very little insight could be gained from the Mississippi State game since the Bulldogs were superior to the Tigers in every facet except punting. Both quarterbacks were less than impressive for most of the game.
Head coach Larry Porter has officially named Smith the starter for Saturday's game at East Carolina. Skeptics will ask what has changed between the fourth series of the Mississippi State game and now? Probably very little, but Porter naming Smith the starter for the second game is not an indictment that his father's influence is in play. There have not been any reports that Fred Smith has tried to have his son elevated to the starting role. He was an ardent Tiger supporter prior to Cannon transferring, and would presumably continue to be one no matter how much his son was playing. Until evidence is produced to the contrary, Smith should be given the benefit of the doubt that his accomplishments are in fact his accomplishments.