USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
In terms of a starting lineup – those 11 players on offense, the 11 on defense – Memphis and third-year coach Justin Fuente have successfully built a core group worthy of commendation, particularly given where the program stood in the weeks, months and years prior to Fuente's arrival.
As we need a refresher. Still: Memphis was not only the worst program in Conference USA in 2011 – this with a bullet – but also one of the worst programs in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision, thanks in large part to administrative mismanagement of a crucial coaching change. That poor hire set Memphis back several years; add in the transition to the American Athletic Conference and you can understand why the Tigers remain one step behind the curve.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
Now, the good news: Fuente, formerly of TCU, has brought the Tigers to competitiveness and the doorstep of respectability. A year ago, for example, the staff's leadership and the roster's strong top shelf kept Memphis within 14 points of seven opponents, including three – Duke, UCF and Louisville – with 10 or more wins.
On the flip side, Memphis crawled to the finish line with back-to-back losses to Temple and Connecticut by a combined 55 points. In comparison, losses to Duke, Middle Tennessee State, UCF, Houston, SMU, Cincinnati and Louisville came by a combined 58 points.
This doesn't paint Memphis as a program lacking for motivation – hunger has not been an issue under Fuente – but rather a specific team short on the depth needed to complete a 12-game circuit through a tougher level of competition. That will separate yesterday's Memphis from the program aiming to make the postseason a permanent home: Memphis needs depth.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
With the Tigers' potential inability to keep passing teams from scoring over the top, can the offense rebound to score enough points to win some high-scoring games? I'm not confident. Fuente has made progress. He'll make more progress in the future. This season still feels like a down one for Memphis.
In a nutshell: The Tigers made things interesting against a number of qualified opponents, as noted. The Tigers were tied with Duke with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter before the Blue Devils scored twice to pull away. Middle Tennessee State's 41-yard field goal late in the fourth secured a 17-15 win. Memphis led UCF 17-10 with 130 seconds left before the Knights scored twice on fumble returns to notch a what-just-happened 24-17 win. This was just in September, by the way. Eventually, the Tigers' lack of proven production sent the season spiraling in November, but the point had already been made: Memphis wasn't quite ready for six or more wins, but this program was ready to give good teams all it could handle in the move to a stronger conference. Progress was made even if the Tigers regressed in the win column.
High point: A 31-7 win against Arkansas State on Sept. 21. The Tigers had lost four of five in the series, none worse than 47-3 embarrassment in 2011.
Low point: Losses to Temple and UConn to end the season. Memphis simply ran out of gas.
Tidbit: September's win against Arkansas State was the Tigers' second in as many years against a team with an end-of-season winning record, joining a 14-10 victory against Rice on Oct. 6, 2012. Locating the previous such win prior to Rice takes us all the way back to Nov. 8, 2008, when Memphis notched a 31-16 win against Southern Mississippi. How about the last time before Arkansas State that Memphis defeated an eight-win team? That would be UTEP, and that would be on Oct. 1, 2005.
Tidbit (unbalanced edition): Memphis finished last season ranked 39th nationally in total defense (370.7 yards per game) and 117th in total offense (311.5 yards per game). The Tigers were one of seven teams nationally to have at least a 75-spot difference in these two major categories, joining Michigan State (second in defense and 81st in offense), Virginia Tech (fourth and 102nd), Iowa (sixth and 85th), Florida (eighth and 115th), South Florida (21st and 123rd) and TCU (25th and 106th).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Wonders of the Ancient World
1. Great Pyramid of Giza
2. Statue of Zeus
3. Colossus of Rhodes
4. Lighthouse of Alexandria
5. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Of this there should be no debate: Paxton Lynch (2,056 yards) should be the Tigers' starting quarterback despite the arrival of JUCO transfer Jason Stewart and regardless of any potential seen in redshirt freshman Brayden Scott, a promising talent fresh off a season of development on the Tigers' scout team. Lynch, a sophomore, flashed significant growth during spring drills, quickly and decisively ending any thought that one of the two newcomers could make a surprising push for the starting job – not that both aren't sitting in reserve, should Lynch miss any extended time during the season. Now, this is noteworthy for four reasons: one, Memphis hasn't had the same quarterback start back-to-back openers since 2009, which is ridiculous; two, Lynch has the physical and mental makeup to be the defining on-field figure during the program's projected push; three, he has clearly improved, with little to no evidence to the contrary; and four, a quarterback will only grow more and more productive with continued snaps in Fuente's offense.
So, in short, Memphis' quarterback situation is in a great place – the program's best in at least five seasons, if not more. Among his other achievements, Fuente has done admirable work developing the Tigers' depth and production at the position; Lynch was rocky at times a year ago, of course, but that shouldn't reflect negatively on his potential in this offense. Expectations remain tempered for 2014 – he still needs time – but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel: Lynch has the tools, makeup and skill set needed to serve as the Tigers' multiple-year starter under center. He'll throw fewer interceptions this fall, will average more yards per attempt and will complete passes at a higher clip, even if Lynch and this offense need more protection up front for this passing game to click on all cylinders.
Senior Brandon Hayes (860 yards) landed an extra year of eligibility, giving Memphis back its lead runner and the anchor of a potentially improved running game – again, much depends on the play up front. With Hayes entrenched as a proven weapon, the Tigers simply need bonus yardage from sophomore Doroland Dorceus (173 yards), who could fit well as a change-of-pace reserve. To run at optimal capacity, the Tigers need a healthy Hayes, a productive Dorceus and some help from redshirt freshmen Tearris Wallace and Robert Davis. Wallace's size could help him carve out a smaller role in short-yardage situations.
A solid degree of production on the ground would make things easier for Lynch; so would a reliable security blanket in the passing game. The Tigers are deep out wide, to be fair, but there's a lack of game-breaking ability: Memphis brings back senior Joe Craig (37 receptions for 338 yards), sophomore Sam Craft (31 for 337), senior Keiwone Malone (25 for 311) and juniors Tevin Jones (25 for 292) and Mose Frazier (18 for 296) – not to mention a nice tight end in Alan Cross (14 for 147) – but it's more about the wealth of options, not one target in particular. That's fine for now, if not a touch better than fine, and Lynch has developed a nice rapport for his entire range of receivers and tight ends. But Memphis clearly needs a go-to receiver in pressure situations. I don't see that option on the roster.
Defense: One year later, the Tigers' defense – run by a really good coach in Barry Odom – is loaded with seniors. This wasn't the case last fall: Memphis started only a pair of upperclassmen in 2013, though that didn't stop the defense from ranking among the 25 best in the country prior to a late collapse against Temple and UConn. The unit's strength is up front, where senior end Martin Ifedi (52 tackles, 11.5 sacks), senior nose tackle Terry Redden (26 tackles, 7.0 for loss) and junior end Ricky Hunter (36 tackles, 12.5 for loss) form the most underrated up-front threesome in the American. Two factors could lift this front to the next level: one, reliable spells from a young crop of second-team reserves, and two, a step forward from sophomore Jackson Dillon (29 tackles, 5.5 for loss), the Tigers' hybrid end-linebacker. The potential is there for an enormously successful season both against the run and the pass during conference play.
It does get weaker from there, however. Despite starting three seniors – Tank Jakes (71 tackles) on the weak side, Charles Harris (74 tackles) in the middle and Ryan Coleman on the strong side – the Tigers' linebacker corps is unimpressive, to be blunt. One issue is the lack of explosiveness: Odom doesn't stress aggressiveness on the second level, instead leaving that dirty work to the big bodies up front, but these linebackers failed to produce their fair share of big plays – outside of Coleman's fumble returns against SMU, of course. That could quickly change: Memphis' recruiting class included a hugely intriguing piece in former Nebraska linebacker Thomas Brown. Let him pin his ears back and go to work. Adding a reliable fifth rusher to the Tigers' front could make a difference.
Now, the secondary. The issue on the back end isn't at cornerback, not when the Tigers return seniors Andrew Gaines, Bakari Hollier and Bobby McCain, the three top dogs from a season ago. Memphis adds another three recruits who could begin their careers on the outside, including one, Ty Northern, from the JUCO ranks. The Tigers' biggest concern – and it's a big one – is the secondary's ability to limit big plays downfield with two new safeties, Reggis Ball and Fritz Etienne. Consider: Memphis allowed 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2013 and 22 completions of 30 or more yards – and this despite teaming then-seniors Lonnie Ballentine and Anthony Watson with a healthy pass rush. So you can't help but be concerned about this defense's ability to limit big plays downfield with a new cast patrolling the back end; in turn, you cannot help but be worried about whether the Tigers' strength up front may be negated by inconsistent play in the secondary.
Special teams: No personnel loss looms larger than Tom Hornsey's graduation at punter. How good was Hornsey? He's the program's best player of the past five or six years, give or take. The Tigers' ability to control field position will struggle in the move from Hornsey to redshirt freshman Spencer Smith. The good news: Memphis returns sophomore kicker Jake Elliott and has more than enough weapons at receiver to mount a credible return game.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: An improved offense – a more consistent offense, a group with the time and space to find seams downfield – begins with a stronger performance from the offensive line. This is an issue: Memphis isn't necessarily weak up front, particularly with a solid core back from last season, but it's clear that development is needed to handle the rigors of conference play. Looking ahead to 2014, the first step entails more reliability on the edges: Taylor Fallin is back on the blind side while senior Al Bond shifts out to right tackle, perhaps solidifying the Tigers' production in the strong-side running game. You'll see changes from guard to guard. For one, it seems as if JUCO transfer Tyler Uselton has grabbed hold of the starting job at left guard, replacing Antonio Foster. In the middle, junior Micah Simmons is the favorite to earn a permanent starting spot after stepping into the lineup for the second half of last season; if he falters, Memphis can turn to sophomore Michael Stannard, who is coming off a redshirt year. It's a little dicey at right guard: Sam Thomas left the spring as the starter, but the sophomore is an unproven commodity. If push comes to shove, Memphis could always push Thomas into a reserve role, move Bond back to guard and promote senior Nykiren Wellington back into the starting lineup. But Bond could be a weapon at tackle.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Middle Tennessee State: Memphis will roll through Austin Peay in the opener – something we couldn't have expected just three years ago – but will find tough sledding during the first half. Why? Because that surefire win is followed by UCLA, Middle Tennessee, Mississippi, Cincinnati and Houston; only the Blue Raiders and Cougars come to Memphis. Salvaging at least one win from that group will leave the Tigers in adequate shape to make a push for bowl eligibility down the stretch, especially given how the schedule eases in the second half.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The program's growth and progress since the day of Fuente's arrival is obvious. The roster is deeper, if still lagging in a handful of key areas. Fuente and his staff have done yeoman's work developing both the inherited talent pool – those juniors and seniors on this year's roster – and those players added in the last three recruiting classes, though the younger group needs to catch up with this year's senior core. The offensive and defensive blueprints are solid, particularly on defense; the offense is getting there, and any missteps thus far have not been as a result of schematics. In all, Memphis has painfully, slowly but effectively reversed a half-decade decline to reassert some place in the conference race.
I see several very nice pieces on this year's two-deep. One is the defensive line, which deserves more recognition in the American. The second is Lynch under center, even if he'll need another season to hit his groove as the Tigers' starter. The receiver corps is deep if lacking in a go-to target; there's experience along the back seven on defense, if no true cause for celebration. Things are moving in the right direction. Will that translate into a leap forward into bowl contention? Not in 2014, in my opinion, thanks to a trio of factors.
The first is the most basic: Memphis heads into a tough schedule. A 1-5 start is very much in the cards, though 2-4 might be viewed as equally likely. Although the second half is smoother, the Tigers still must prove themselves against the bottom half of the American – let's remember that Temple and UConn faced little blowback in last season's lopsided wins. A second factor is the lack of depth, which is clear almost throughout the entire roster, outside of receiver. The third factor is the hardest to explain: Memphis has made great strides but is not – in my opinion – ready to take the next step to six or more wins. Is that coming? Every sign points to an eventual breakthrough. Optimism should be high, but let's temper that positivity with some realism: Memphis needs another year to develop into a bowl team.
Dream season: Memphis wins eight games, six in American play, and moves back into the postseason after a painfully long absence.
Nightmare season: The Tigers drop a win from last year's total and finish 2-10.
Who's No. 95? This school has won 120 conference championships as a member of its current league, including eight in a row in one specific men's sport.
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