Team: Memphis Tigers
2014 record: 9-3 (7-1 AAC)
Recap: In less than three years, former TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente transformed one of the worst college football programs into one that was worthy of a Top 25 finish—the first in school history.
In 2012, Fuente inherited a roster that lacked depth at virtually every position and that didn’t know how to win games (or compete, for that matter, having won just five games from 2009-11). It didn’t take very long to change that; Memphis lost on the road to UCLA by a touchdown and held Ole Miss to seven points heading into the fourth quarter, beat AAC preseason favorite Cincinnati 41-14, took a share of the conference title and took out BYU—one of the most consistent non-Power Five programs in the country over the last decade—in the Miami Beach Bowl for the team’s first 10-win season ever.
Three years ago, we were talking about a program that couldn’t hang with an opponent like UAB and struggled to win a game in Conference USA play. Now, as Fuente enters his fourth season after a contract extension, we’re beginning to view Memphis as a team that is built to contend for years to come.
Following up on the best season in school history won’t be easy. Most of the Tigers’ 11th-ranked scoring defense (19.5 ppg) needs replaced, and defensive coordinator Barry Odom is now with Missouri. But the offense is loaded, and another run at the AAC title—this time outright, thanks to a new division split and championship game—is in reach.
Key player: Paxton Lynch, Jr., QB
Lynch put up some strong numbers as a sophomore, totaling 3,352 yards and 35 touchdowns (22 passing, 13 rushing) while keeping his interceptions mark under double-digits (9). With a defense that is set to regress, Lynch will by relied on to take his game to the next level and generate bigger offensive numbers.
Biggest strength: An efficient passing game
Memphis returns seven starters on offense, including Lynch’s second-leading receiver in Mose Frazier (47 receptions, 506 yards, 3 touchdowns) and first-team All-AAC tight end Alan Cross (28 rec, 373 yds, 4 TD). An offensive line that allowed just 16 sacks and was vital to the quick-pass scheme also brings 92 career starts to the field, and Doroland Dorceus heads to the backfield after missing most of the 2014 season with injury. Memphis finished third in the AAC in yards per attempt (7.4), second in completion percentage (62.7), and tied for first in turnovers (20) last year, and we can expect those numbers to improve this fall.
Biggest weakness: Maintaining identity on defense
This doesn’t mean that the defense won’t be good; Memphis utilized its two-deep roster in 2014 and got experience for a ton of its players. But when eight starters from a defense that ranked top 10 nationally in yards per play (4.74) and 30th in tackles for loss (86.0), it’s safe to assume that things will change. New defensive coordinator Galen Scott is being challenged to find suitable replacements for three new starting linebackers, three new starting defensive backs and two new starting defensive linemen. The question isn’t will Memphis regress, it’s how much and how long it will take to get back to 2014 form, if possible.
Most important game: at Houston (Nov. 14)
Memphis has a big-time crossover matchup with Cincinnati earlier in the season, but beating Houston—my early favorite to win the West—would almost assuredly solidify the Tigers a spot in the AAC Championship Game.
Best-case scenario: 11-1 (8-0)
Paxton Lynch takes his development one step further and becomes the every down consistent passer Memphis needs as it switches its personality from defensive juggernaut to high-scoring machine; standard passing downs are no longer strenuous, but play in his favor thanks to a potent running game. Despite major transition, the defense remains aggressive and playmakers emerge via the pass rush.
Worst-case scenario: 6-6 (4-4)
Memphis’ offensive line cannot compensate for the losses of three players with starting experience, including all-conference right tackle Al Bond. This means opportunities for the backfield become scarce, and the running game regresses, which puts unwanted pressure on a pass attack that already had issues on third down (36.5 percent, 7th in AAC). A new-look defense struggles to adjust and lacks playmaking ability, which is exposed against high-powered offenses such as Cincinnati, Navy, and Houston.
Early prediction: 9-3 (6-2)
Fuente has done an impeccable job adding quality depth across the board, and while the defense will almost have no choice but to take a step back, the offense will be able to make up for lost ground. Depending on how quickly those replacements can develop on defense, the Tigers have enough pieces to remain a threat to win the conference and can potentially vie for a second straight 10-win season, something that would have been laughable two or three years ago.