There’s no other way to put it: Memphis’ triumph over No. 13 Ole Miss last Saturday was the most significant regular season win in the history of the American Athletic Conference and reaffirmed everything that we thought about head coach Justin Fuente.
Just about everyone who closely follows college football already had a high opinion of Fuente heading into this weekend, but the praise for him has reached new heights in the aftermath of the Tigers’ upset victory, and deservingly so.
This is a program that was among the worst in the FBS quite recently. From 2009 to 2013, the Tigers went 12-48. Less than two years later, Memphis is riding a 13-game winning streak, third longest in the country, after defeating a ranked opponent for the first time since 1996.
Not only did the Tigers defeat the Rebels last Saturday, they did so in convincing fashion after falling into an early hole.
Less than six minutes into the game, Ole Miss had jumped out to a 14-0 lead and it looked like the rout may be on in Memphis. However, the Tigers were unfazed, striking back and eventually taking a 24-14 lead into the locker room at the half. The second half would be more of the same, as Memphis would ultimately win 37-24.
Quarterback Paxton Lynch led the way for the Tigers on offense, throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns on 73.6 percent passing. It was a superb showing that helped Memphis overcome a stellar outing from Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who recorded 144 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 14 receptions.
Needless to say, this was a major win for not just Memphis, but the AAC as a whole. A victory against a ranked SEC opponent that defeated the formidable Alabama Crimson Tide earlier in the season sounds like a pipe dream for a conference like the AAC, yet that dream has somehow become a reality. Combine that with the fact that three AAC teams are ranked in the latest AP poll, and there’s plenty of cause for celebration for the conference right now.
For the Tigers, it moves them to 6-0 and certainly gives a boost to their case as the best team from a Group of Five conference. Memphis now has serious aspirations of an appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game. A challenging stretch in November that seems them play Navy, Houston and Temple in consecutive weeks could thwart this dream, but the Tigers are certainly good enough to navigate that stretch unscathed.
This year is turning into a true dream season for Memphis fans, which is a testament to the remarkable turnaround that Fuente as orchestrated in less than four years time. Not only has he breathed life into this once moribund program, he’s turned them into a real Group of Five power.
You’d have to figure that Fuente won’t be sticking around in Memphis for much longer, but no reasonable Tigers fan will feel anything but gratitude and respect for him when he does inevitably depart. His time at Memphis will be remembered fondly, and last weekend’s win over Ole Miss could go down as his finest moment.