Memphis Tigers Football
It was a remarkably good year for the Memphis Tigers football team in 2012. Well, at least by their standards.
In head coach Justin Fuente's first season guiding the program, the Tigers finished with a 4-8 record, their highest win total since the 2008 season. With fans finally getting a taste of victory, expectations for 2013 have risen to a new level.
The three seasons before he came to the rescue were horrific to put it nicely. That's all in the past now though, so no need to immerse in it. Fuente did one of the best jobs in all of college football last year and injected life into a stale program.
Memphis improved in just about every facet of the game. A look at the stat book shows that. But, the program has been a consistent loser for much of the last five years and moving to the American Athletic Conference brings even greater challenges.
With their season opener at home against Duke just over a week away, there remains many concerns and potentially season-souring problems. Here is the list highlighting the five biggest ones that threaten to derail the Tigers 2013 season.
This is a list of the top five biggest problems the Tigers face in 2013, so naturally, there are a few that failed to make the cut. Of the problems that were not as glaring as the others, standing out are the wide receivers and depth as a whole.
Yes, the Tigers have talent out wide, however, much of the receiving core is inexperienced.
Junior Keiwone Malone is solid, but behind him lie question marks. Clemson transfer Joe Craig has world-class speed and will factor into the equation, as will sophomore Tevin Jones. Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch has yet to throw a pass at the collegiate level, so receivers need to step up to ease his transition.
Overall depth also remains an issue. It's only Fuente's second season leading the program, so if you thought the Tigers were two to three deep at every position, you might want to reevaluate the situation. Lest you forget that this is a team just one year removed from the cellar of college football.
It takes more than a couple recruiting cycles to build quality depth behind the starters. Fuente has the program on the right track, but an injury or two at key positions would prove costly.
Any avid football fan knows that everything on offense starts up front with the offensive line. A good offensive line means more holes for running backs and more time for quarterbacks to survey the field for the open man.
While the Tigers are far from terrible with the hog mollies, they certainly are not terrific either. If the movie The Blind Side taught us anything, it's that the tackle spot is of the utmost importance. Memphis lost All-C-USA left tackle Jordan Devey.
Responsible for opening up the running game, the line struggled much of 2012 to clear lanes. Memphis ranked 69th in the country in rushing yards per game (151.8) and losing their anchor on the line raises concerns.
There's no shortage of talented pass rushers in the AAC, so how much the Tiger offense, which was No. 110 in the NCAA in total yards per game (318.4), progresses from 2012 greatly hinges on the O-line's continuity and blocking. It helps that the three returning starters are all upperclassmen, but with an average weight of 278 pounds, they are one of the smaller units in their conference.
The Memphis secondary will be the most improved unit on defense. Take that with a grain of salt, though.
Senior free safety Lonnie Ballentine has great size at 6'3", 215-pounds and NFL talent. Bobby McCain is solid as well and is the team's best cover corner. Both will be relied on heavily to try and stop some very prolific passing offenses the AAC offers.
The Tigers have two new starters in strong safety Reggis Ball and cornerback Bakari Hollier. They won't have much time to get acclimated to their new roles, as two prolific offenses (Central Florida and Houston) are on the schedule in game four and five.
Memphis' defense made a remarkable turnaround from 2011 to 2012, going from almost dead last in yards allowed per game to 50th in the country. While the secondary wasn't bad, allowing 245.6 passing ypg (78th in the NCAA) won't cut it in the AAC.
If they can cut even just 30-40 yards off that average, the rest of the Tigers defense is good enough to considerably slow down teams like Cincinnati and Louisville.
If there was a consensus pet peeve for every college football coach, turnovers would be the culprit. The leading cause of hair loss for coaches around the country, Fuente watched his team time and time again lose games because they couldn't take care of the football.
Surprisingly enough, the turnover problem had nothing to do with quarterback play. No, that onus falls on the running game where the Tigers fumbled the ball 36 times. Yes, 36 times the ball hit the ground. No typo.
Of those 36 fumbles, 21 of them ended up in the opponents' hands. Fumbles single-handedly caused the Tigers to miss winning six games. In fact, there wasn't one game that the Tigers didn't put the ball on the ground. Out of 12 games, they fumbled two times or more in eight games. If there's a game plan to pile up losses, the Tigers had it down pat.
Much of it can be attributed to their lack of a premiere back for most of the season. It's hard to get in a rhythm when your shuffling three to four guys in and out of the backfield. Senior Brandon Hayes came on strong at the end of the year and will be the guy in 2013, which should help their cause.
If Memphis can't hold on to the ball, you better believe with a tougher schedule opponents will eat them up. Footballs anyone?
In one of the bigger surprises of the offseason, Fuente named redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch the starter for game one verses Duke over 2012 starter senior Jacob Karam.
The reason? Lynch impressed the staff throughout the spring and fall with his laser arm, decision-making and progression. At 6'6", he has the ability to see over the line and make quick reads. His physical tools gave him a distinct advantage over Karam.
The decision to start Lynch comes with risks, despite his vast potential.
The most obvious is his inexperience. Lynch has never thrown a pass at the collegiate level. It should also be noted that he won't have an easy game to get his feet wet, something you'd prefer when throwing a freshman into the fire.
The move by Fuente is an attempt to spark an offense that put up just 166.6 ypg (109th in the NCAA) through the air, 24.4 points per game (86th) and 318.4 ypg (110th) of total offense. How quickly Lynch progresses through the first three to four games could be the difference between a bowl bid or another four-win season. If he struggles early on, Fuente won't hesitate to put Karam under center.
Being in C-USA for Fuente's first year as the head honcho helped Memphis' progression a lot. Before his arrival, the Tigers went 5-31 in the previous three seasons.
The lower level of competition in their former league allowed the team to make strides much faster than if they had moved conferences a year earlier. Lindy's College Football Preview had one major potential problem for Memphis in 2013—their move to the AAC and the competition that comes with it.
Gone are the Tulanes' and Rices' of the world. Taking their places are programs like Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and Connecticut. The upgraded slate tests how far the program has come since Fuente's arrival.
The tell-tale of the team's progress in the last year will be shown on Nov. 23 when the Tigers make the trip to Louisville. Don't expect Memphis to walk away with the win, but being competitive and keeping it close relays the message that the team is no longer a sure win and is moving in the right direction.
Consistency is the key to a successful 2013 campaign for Memphis. Just about every game on the slate provides a formidable match up for the Tigers. They have to bring their "A" game each week and must match their opponents' physicality to avoid a slippery slope.
Last year, the schedule got easier as the season pressed forward. That's not the case this time around.