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The big 2014 Memphis football preview: Digging your way out of destitution

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Fuente inherited a destitute program in 2012, but his Memphis squad has taken healthy steps forward in each of his first two years. Another step could follow in 2014, but a tough schedule could still prevent a serious bowl run.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Digging your way out

At first, growth can be hard to notice, at least from an outsider's perspective. To said outsiders, Memphis' second season under Justin Fuente was a lot like the first. The Tigers beat some bad teams and conquered the mighty UT-Martin team that felled them in 2012, but they finished 3-9, one game behind where they were the year before.

Now, 3-9 isn't awful for a team that went 5-31 from 2009-11, but it's still probably not seen as significant growth. Considering the hole from which Fuente had to dig, however, Memphis' growth has been impressive. The defense was downright good for most of the season, and after losing to opponents with winning records by an average of 35-18 in 2012, that average improved to 23-19 in 2013. Memphis lost by only a touchdown to each of the AAC's best teams (UCF, Louisville) and stayed competitive in losses to Duke, Houston, and Cincinnati.

The Tigers fell off of a cliff late in the season, but it was still another season of gains overall. Memphis ranked 119th in the F/+ rankings in 2011, improved to 94th in 2012, and improved again to 83rd last fall. The trend is positive.

But as we've seen at plenty of rebuilding jobs before, wins do need to follow at some point, or negativity can take over. And as Fuente makes his team stronger, the schedule appears to get less and less forgiving. To break through and threaten for bowl eligibility in 2014, Memphis will need to either pull some home upsets or beat teams of a similar caliber on the road.

Are the Tigers ready to take that step?

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 83
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
7-Sep Duke 41 14-28 L 13.4 - 26.1 L
14-Sep at Middle Tennessee 85 15-17 L 21.4 - 19.4 W
21-Sep Arkansas State 90 31-7 W 38.5 - 13.8 W
5-Oct Central Florida 21 17-24 L 31.5 - 16.0 W
12-Oct at Houston 46 15-25 L 19.2 - 15.4 W 6.7
19-Oct SMU 84 29-34 L 19.7 - 29.2 L 7.3
30-Oct Cincinnati 64 21-34 L 21.7 - 24.8 L 6.3
9-Nov UT-Martin N/A 21-6 W 20.9 - 26.1 L 0.3
16-Nov at South Florida 99 23-10 W 22.8 - 45.3 L -7.3
23-Nov at Louisville 12 17-24 L 38.6 - 17.5 W -3.8
30-Nov Temple 98 21-41 L 13.8 - 33.2 L -5.8
7-Dec at Connecticut 93 10-45 L 15.6 - 49.5 L -12.0
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ -11.8% 107 +0.1% 61 +2.7% 15
Points Per Game 19.5 112 24.6 44
Adj. Points Per Game 23.1 104 26.3 55

2. Close early, blowouts late

The 2012 season ended with Memphis on an upswing. The Tigers finished that year by thumping three bad teams (Tulane, UAB, Southern Miss) by an average score of 42-19.

And at the beginning of the 2013 season, they rode one of the best mid-major defenses in the country to some decent early results. They were tied with what ended up being a damn good Duke team (though we didn't really know it at the time) with 10 minutes left. They were felled by penalties and a late field goal in a loss to a decent MTSU team. They romped over Arkansas State in one of the strangest early results of the season (total yards: Memphis 505, ASU 255). And they led eventual conference champion UCF by a touchdown with under three minutes to go before a strange, fluky ending.

With 2:05 remaining, UCF's Storm Johnson fumbled into the Memphis end zone, where [the Knights] recovered for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-17. On the ensuing kickoff, Marquis Warford was crushed by UCF's William Stanback (on a borderline helmet-to-helmet hit) and fumbled, and Drico Johnson returned it for a touchdown.

Memphis immediately drove the length of the field ... and threw an interception on a third-and-goal halfback pass. Memphis outgained UCF by 127 yards, but the fumble gods did not smile on them.

When you've forgotten how to win, fate is sometimes pretty cruel in reminding you of that.

Fate continued to hold Memphis back a bit, and the Tigers lost rather competitive games to both Houston and SMU. And while they did win a couple of games against lesser opponents (UT-Martin, USF) in early-November, a tight loss at Louisville eliminated them from bowl consideration with two games left. And then the team fell apart.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Memphis 24.8, Opponent 18.1 (plus-6.7)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 28.6, Memphis 24.7 (minus-3.9)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 2 games): Opponent 41.4, Memphis 14.7 (minus-26.7)

In the end, Memphis was 0-4 in games decided by one possession in 2013, and the Tigers eventually became their record. But from the 20,000-foot view, the season represented a second straight step forward. And there are enough pieces returning that a third step is quite conceivable.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.05 106 IsoPPP+ 98.1 72
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.2% 104 Succ. Rt. + 86.9 107
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.8 88 Def. FP+ 96.4 94
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.7 106 Redzone S&P+ 96.5 77
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.8 ACTUAL 26 +3.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 117 104 108 110
RUSHING 96 88 108 72
PASSING 107 111 99 112
Standard Downs 97 103 50
Passing Downs 116 110 115
Q1 Rk 106 1st Down Rk 71
Q2 Rk 119 2nd Down Rk 113
Q3 Rk 109 3rd Down Rk 120
Q4 Rk 52

3. Falling behind schedule

Looking at individual players, traits, and performances, you can talk yourself into this Memphis offense to a certain degree.

Running back Brandon Hayes rushed for 259 yards at 6.2 yards per carry in a three-game span against Arkansas State, UCF, and Houston. Quarterback Paxton Lynch, just a freshman in 2013, completed at least 65 percent of his passes in five starts and completed 72 percent against SMU. Five Tiger receivers managed at least one 30-yard catch, and former four-star recruit Keiwone Malone came alive late in the year (last three games: 14 catches, 207 yards). And the offensive line has both experience (five players with starting experience and 60 total starts) and size (average size of those five players: 6'5, 303) on the "pros" side of the pros-and-cons list.

This offense was still pretty bad last year, however. Memphis ranked 88th in Rushing S&P+, 111th in Passing S&P+, 97th on standard downs, and 116th on passing downs. Aside from occasional big plays in the running game, there really were no particular strengths here, and Fuente and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey were unable to figure out how to prevent Memphis from falling behind schedule. Memphis wants to go up-tempo if possible, but when you're dealing with endless second-and-9s, that's just not an option.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Paxton Lynch 6'6, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 203 349 2056 9 10 58.2% 25 6.7% 5.0
Jacob Karam 3 7 22 0 0 42.9% 2 22.2% 0.8
Brayden Scott 6'3, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Jason Stewart 6'3, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)

4. The Paxton Show

Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch overtook veteran Jacob Karam for the starting job last year and was basically left to his own devices. Memphis certainly wanted to establish a decent running game, but for much of the season (especially the second half of the season), all the running game really accomplished was eating up downs so Lynch didn't have to throw as much. That's probably good, as he wasn't quite ready to carry an offense.

The offense returns a lot of experience in 2014; Brandon Hayes was granted a sixth year of eligibility, four of the top five returning wideouts are juniors and seniors, etc. But the success of the offense overall will hinge on Lynch, who looked pretty good this spring. There are quite a few interesting pieces in the backfield, from Hayes and the potentially explosive Doroland Dorceus (who had 148 yards on 19 carries in the spring game) to three-star freshmen Robert Davis and Jarvis Cooper. And at the least, he'll have Malone and three possession receivers (Joe Craig, Tevin Jones, Sam Craft) returning, and they'll all have a year of rapport built.

But the talent isn't such that it can carry the load without strong (not competent, but strong) quarterback play. It's up to Lynch to prove he can provide that, and it might be another year before he really can.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Brandon Hayes RB 5'8, 198 Sr. NR 201 860 5 4.3 3.7 35.8%
Paxton Lynch QB 6'6, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 63 311 2 4.9 3.8 42.9%
Marquis Warford RB 51 303 1 5.9 10.4 37.3%
Doroland Dorceus RB 5'10, 195 So. 2 stars (5.3) 30 173 0 5.8 5.8 43.3%
Jai Steib RB 28 58 1 2.1 2.1 21.4%
Sam Craft WR-S 6'0, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7) 24 110 5 4.6 3.3 41.7%
Robert Davis RB 5'9, 170 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Tearris Wallace RB 5'10, 212 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Jarvis Cooper RB 6'1, 255 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)



Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Joe Craig WR-X 5'11, 175 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 63 37 338 58.7% 19.2% 50.8% 5.4 -132 5.4 41.3
Tevin Jones WR-Z 6'2, 215 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 54 25 292 46.3% 16.5% 51.9% 5.4 -70 5.6 35.7
Sam Craft WR-S 6'0, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7) 50 31 337 62.0% 15.2% 78.3% 6.7 -46 5.0 41.2
Keiwone Malone WR-X 5'11, 155 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 33 25 311 75.8% 10.1% 66.7% 9.4 31 9.7 38.0
Brandon Hayes RB 5'8, 198 Sr. NR 29 20 119 69.0% 8.8% 53.6% 4.1 -115 4.3 14.5
Mose Frazier WR-S 5'11, 184 Jr. NR 29 18 296 62.1% 8.8% 39.3% 10.2 74 10.6 36.2
Alan Cross TE 6'1, 245 Jr. NR 19 14 147 73.7% 5.8% 58.8% 7.7 -12 7.7 18.0
Daniel Hurd WR-Z 6'2, 212 So. 3 stars (5.5) 16 8 91 50.0% 4.9% 76.9% 5.7 -20 5.0 11.1
Jesse Milleson TE 13 9 59 69.2% 4.0% 61.5% 4.5 -46 4.3 7.2
Marquis Warford RB 13 12 43 92.3% 4.0% 58.3% 3.3 -80 3.5 5.3
Adrian Henderson WR 6'0, 196 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 4 3 17 75.0% 1.2% 25.0% 4.3 -17 4.1 2.1
Jai Steib RB 3 3 23 100.0% 0.9% 50.0% 7.7 -7 9.1 2.8
Jamere Valentine WR 2 1 5 50.0% 0.6% 0.0% 2.5 -9 1.1 0.6
Tyler Kolodny TE 6'3, 245 So. 2 stars (5.2)
Roderick Proctor WR 5'11, 161 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)








Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 92.6 2.66 2.84 37.4% 54.1% 23.4% 90.9 4.6% 8.3%
Rank 93 102 105 84 116 117 80 62 85
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Chris Schuetz C 27
Al Bond RG 6'4, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 27
Antonio Foster LG 24
Taylor Fallin LT 6'6, 330 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 13
Nykiren Wellington RT 6'7, 325 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 11
Micah Simmons C 6'3, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 7
Tony Mays LT 6'4, 275 So. 2 stars (5.4) 2
Sam Thomas RG 6'2, 285 So. NR 0
Christopher Roberson RT 6'5, 315 So. NR 0
Daivon Milan OL 6'3, 325 So. NR 0
Kevin McIntyre OL 6'4, 302 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0
Michael Stannard OL 6'2, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0
Zach Collins OL 6'4, 285 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Tyler Uselton OL 6'2, 310 Jr. 2 stars (5.3)
Tyler Jones OL 6'5, 271 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Jace Neville OL 6'6, 260 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

5. The line should come around, whatever that's worth

Rankings of 93rd (Adj. Line Yards) and 80th (Adj. Sack Rate) are far from strong, but when you look at Memphis' other efficiency ratings on offense, you see that, at worst, Memphis' line wasn't holding this offense back. (If you Google "tepid praise," I'm pretty sure this sentence will be the first result.)

To the extent that Fuente and predecessor Larry Porter recruited well, the three-star recruits really haven't come up front. But again, with solid size and depth of experience, this line should improve, even if improvement just means 83rd in Adj. Line Yards and 70th in Adj. Sack Rate.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.08 37 IsoPPP+ 102.4 49
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 40.5% 42 Succ. Rt. + 104.5 43
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.4 87 Off. FP+ 98.5 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.7 12 Redzone S&P+ 98.7 65
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.5 ACTUAL 18.0 -0.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 39 37 43 52
RUSHING 12 31 50 42
PASSING 99 45 31 56
Standard Downs 30 40 48
Passing Downs 52 59 41
Q1 Rk 42 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 54 2nd Down Rk 34
Q3 Rk 50 3rd Down Rk 59
Q4 Rk 40

6. Opponents knew to pass

First things first: perhaps the most important person for Memphis returns this year.

That's defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who in two years took a defense that ranked 114th in Def. F/+ in both 2010 and 2011, improved it to 80th in 2012, then boosted it to 61st in 2013. The offense has remained the same in Fuente's tenure, but the defense has been responsible for a vast majority of Memphis' overall improvement. Odom was considered for the vacant Arkansas defensive coordinator position, but he will remain with Fuente for at least one more year.

As I admitted last year, I'm an unabashed Odom homer.

The Memphis defensive coordinator went to Ada High School in Oklahoma in the mid-1990s, and his team beat mine a couple of times in the state playoffs. He ended up attending my alma mater (Missouri) and serving as a stalwart linebacker, fighting through injuries and maintaining a steady presence, especially on the 1997-98 Tiger teams that attended the postseason after a long bowl drought. He spent nearly a decade on Gary Pinkel's Mizzou staff, as well. He's down-to-earth, likable, and full of promise as a defensive coach.

And if you don't trust me to give you an unbiased opinion on that last point, just look at the numbers instead. Under Larry Porter, Memphis' defense was nearly as bad as its offense. In both 2010 and 2011, the Tigers ranked 114th in Def. F/+; but in 2012, despite quite a bit of turnover up front, Memphis improved 34 spots, to 80th. The defense was below average in September, average in October, and downright good in November.

Being a homer is fine as long as you admit it, but I think my leaning has been backed up by performance in recent years. That he's back is a major boon for the 2014 Tigers.

That said, the defense did fade late, and as good as the Tigers were up front, they were a bit shaky in passing situations. The blitz wasn't very effective, and the secondary wasn't very successfully aggressive. And looking at the returning on-field personnel, it appears that strengths could get stronger and weaknesses could get weaker.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 117.1 2.54 2.64 35.6% 72.5% 23.9% 108.3 7.1% 5.0%
Rank 15 16 14 29 94 16 46 16 103
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Martin Ifedi DE 6'3, 265 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 12 41.0 6.2% 14.5 10.5 0 1 1 0
Ricky Hunter DE 6'3, 275 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 12 29.5 4.5% 12.5 4.5 0 0 0 0
Jackson Dillon DAWG 6'6, 230 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 24.5 3.7% 5.5 1.0 0 2 0 0
Terry Redden NT 6'2, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 22.5 3.4% 7.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Corey Jones DE 12 19.0 2.9% 4.0 0.5 0 1 0 0
Kendrick Golden DAWG 6'4, 215 Sr. NR 12 10.0 1.5% 2.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Johnnie Farms NT 6 9.5 1.4% 3.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Latarius Brady DE 6'2, 270 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 8.0 1.2% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Chase Rome NT 10 8.0 1.2% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Cortez Crosby DL 6'1, 280 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Isadore Outing DE 6'4, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Caleb Grant DE 6'4, 240 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)






7. One of the best mid-major lines

Memphis has produced its fair share of strong defensive linemen through the years. Dontari Poe was drafted in the first round in 2012, two other defensive tackles have been picked in the draft since 2004 (Clinton McDonald and Eric Taylor), and others like Kellen Heard and Tony Brown have bounced around through the years.

It would probably make sense, then, that the line was the first thing to come around for Odom's defense. Memphis' 2014 line was damn strong, with basically three down linemen and a "DAWG" rush end/OLB (not a "TIGER?"). Martin Ifedi was a strong pass rusher, Ricky Hunter was great against the run, and while the tackles don't really have tackle size, Terry Redden, a former star recruit, proved himself a potential play-maker.

All four of those players return. Despite a lack of wonderful size in the middle, Memphis ranked 15th in Adj. Line Yards and 31st in Rushing S&P+. I don't see those numbers dropping much, especially considering all three starting linebackers also return. The pass rush wasn't amazing outside of Ifedi, but you still win one battle by forcing opponents to become one-dimensional. Memphis did it in 2013 and could do it again in 2014.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Tank Jakes WILL 5'11, 225 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 59.5 9.1% 7.5 3.0 0 0 1 0
Charles Harris MIKE 6'2, 243 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 58.5 8.9% 4.0 0.0 0 3 0 0
Ryan Coleman SAM 6'3, 225 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 12 50.0 7.6% 3.0 0.0 0 1 2 2
Anthony Brown WILL 12 37.0 5.6% 4.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Leonard Pegues MIKE 5'11, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 12 21.0 3.2% 1.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Derek Howard LB 6'2, 205 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 12 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kewan Alfred LB 6'3, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.5)
Wynton McManis SAM 6'1, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)
Thomas Brown LB 6'2, 210 So. NR
Noah Robinson LB 6'4, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)
Curtis Akins LB 6'2, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)
Shareef White LB 6'1, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)






Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Andrew Gaines CB 5'11, 185 Sr. NR 12 55.5 8.4% 0.5 0.5 0 7 0 0
Lonnie Ballentine FS 12 47.5 7.2% 0 0 0 5 0 0
Anthony Watson SS 10 28.5 4.3% 0 0 1 1 0 0
Reggis Ball SS 5'11, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 28.0 4.3% 2.5 1.5 1 2 1 0
Bakari Hollier CB 5'10, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 12 25.5 3.9% 1 0 1 8 0 0
Bobby McCain CB 5'11, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 9 23.0 3.5% 1 0 6 4 0 0
Dion Witty FS 5'10, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 8 9.5 1.4% 0.5 0 1 2 0 0
Chris Morley CB 5'11, 185 So. 2 stars (5.4) 12 9.0 1.4% 2 0 1 4 0 0
Dontrell Nelson DB 6'1, 170 So. 2 stars (5.3) 9 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Fritz Etienne S 6'2, 210 Sr. 2 stars (5.4)
Phillip Sumpter DB 5'11, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3)
Ty Northern DB 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.3)
Brujoun Bonner DB 6'3, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)






8. One hole, basically

Returning nine starters from a good defense is unquestionably a good thing. But it is at least a little bit disconcerting that perhaps last year's biggest defensive weakness (big plays in the passing game) is going to be addressed with two new safeties this year.

Lonnie Ballentine and Anthony Watson weren't amazing, but they were starters, which suggests they were better than the alternatives. Redshirt freshman Phillip Sumpter was a standout in the spring game, and the rest of last year's two-deep returns intact (and it bears mentioning that the top three returning corners combined for seven picks and 19 break-ups), so hope is not lost here. But we can't really say with certainty that this year's pass defense will be any better than last year's.

Still, defense is not going to be Memphis' biggest concern. Far from it.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tom Hornsey 62 45.2 4 15 29 71.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Jake Elliott 5'10, 160 So. 51 60.9 21 2 41.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jake Elliott 5'10, 160 So. 24-24 9-10 90.0% 7-8 87.5%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Joe Craig KR 5'11, 175 Sr. 27 26.8 0
Marquis Warford KR 12 22.3 0
Keiwone Malone PR 5'11, 155 Sr. 25 6.4 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 15
Field Goal Efficiency 7
Punt Return Efficiency 43
Kick Return Efficiency 71
Punt Efficiency 7
Kickoff Efficiency 101
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 43

9. Replacing Hornsey

Despite some shaky kick coverage, Memphis had a top-20 special teams unit in 2013. This was due to Jake Elliott's place-kicking (nearly automatic, and strong, as a freshman) and Tom Hornsey's punting. Elliott is back, but Hornsey isn't; he was a fair-catch/inside-the-20 machine, and it will be difficult to replace his production.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Austin Peay NR
6-Sep at UCLA 15
20-Sep Middle Tennessee 99
27-Sep at Ole Miss 26
4-Oct at Cincinnati 54
11-Oct Houston 41
25-Oct at SMU 74
31-Oct Tulsa 64
7-Nov at Temple 87
15-Nov at Tulane 90
22-Nov South Florida 77
29-Nov Connecticut 86
Five-Year F/+ Rk -22.6% (119)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 86
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -4.4
TO Luck/Game -1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (9, 9)

10. Not the schedule for a breakthrough

Let's say that Memphis' offense improves from 107th in Off. F/+ to about 97th. Let's say the defense improves even further, from 61st in Def. F/+ to 51st. And let's say the special teams unit holds steady. That could bump Memphis into the No. 70-75 range overall, and it would represent a third straight year of solid improvement.

Unfortunately, it doesn't mean that the schedule would cooperate. A No. 75 Memphis team would still face six opponents projected higher (granted, I think that Tulsa projection is quite shaky...) and two more (Tulane, Temple) projected reasonably close and on the road. With a schedule that includes trips to UCLA, Ole Miss, and Cincinnati and almost no slam-dunk wins, a better Memphis team still might not be good enough.

That said, Fuente is building something here. Again, the wins need to follow at some point, but I've been impressed with what he's done to date, and I think his 2014 team is in good position to take another step forward, even if the Tigers might still be another year away from a potential bowl.

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