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1. The Metro Conference lives
In 1990, before SEC and Big Ten expansion, and long before the conference realignment and super-conference drama of the 2010s, Raycom Sports proposed the nation's first super conference. With independents still littered throughout the college football landscape, Raycom-based authors, including current CEO Ken Haines, published "Developing the Super Conference," a 240-page proposal that would have changed college football in a way that seems relatively familiar now. The Metro Conference, then basketball-focused, featured eight teams: Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis (then Memphis State), South Carolina, Southern Miss, Tulane, and Virginia Tech. The proposal was to bring in schools that would give Raycom and the Metro a presence in nearly every available Eastern metropolitan area: Boston College, East Carolina, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, and West Virginia. If UCF and USF had existing football programs in 1990, they might have been part of the proposal as well. And if the SWC had already dissolved, as it would a few years later, SMU and Houston might have been in the plans as well.
The proposal obviously didn't take. A year later, Florida State moved to the ACC. Then South Carolina became part of the SEC's expansion package. Eventually a lot of these schools would become part of either the Big East or Conference USA, and during the conference realignment antics of the last decade, the ACC, Big 12, and even the Big Ten would pilfer some programs.
In 2013, the Big East has become the American Athletic Conference. Before Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) can ditch the ACC for more attractive digs, though, we get to bask in some Metro nostalgia. Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis are back together, as are a couple of Metro expansion programs (Temple and Rutgers). The what-if quality of the 1990 Metro proposal is fun to swim around in occasionally -- I've done it many times since realignment began moving full-speed in 2010 -- but while the American will not be considered a major conference starting in 2014, we do get a chance to bask in what-ifs one last time.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 94|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||UT-Martin||17-20||L||16.5 - 37.0||L|
|8-Sep||at Arkansas State||28-33||L||24.6 - 27.6||L|
|15-Sep||Middle Tennessee||30-48||L||26.7 - 31.3||L|
|22-Sep||at Duke||14-38||L||5.5 - 31.6||L|
|6-Oct||Rice||14-10||W||15.3 - 11.8||W|
|13-Oct||at East Carolina||7-41||L||14.9 - 28.0||L|
|20-Oct||Central Florida||17-35||L||25.6 - 24.0||W|
|27-Oct||at SMU||13-44||L||15.1 - 42.0||L|
|3-Nov||at Marshall||28-38||L||21.5 - 29.3||L|
|10-Nov||Tulane||37-23||W||27.0 - 27.4||L|
|17-Nov||at UAB||46-9||W||24.0 - 10.5||W|
|24-Nov||Southern Miss||42-24||W||39.5 - 27.7||W|
|Points Per Game||24.4||89||30.3||80|
|Adj. Points Per Game||21.3||116||27.4||59|
2. November was good to Memphis
It's amazing how quickly fortunes can change. In 2008, Memphis was finishing up a string of five bowls in six years. The Tigers weren't very good in 2008 (they finished 6-7 with a blowout loss to South Florida in what would soon become the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl), but Tommy West still brought unprecedented good fortune to the program, even getting them briefly ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in 2004.
When the wheels came off, however, they came flying off. Ranked 77th in the F/+ rankings in 2008, the Tigers fell to 2-10 and 107th in 2009, and West was dumped in favor of LSU running backs coach Larry Porter. Wrong choice, apparently. Memphis was 1-11 and 118th in 2010 and 2-10 and 119th in 2011, and Porter was quickly fired.
Despite mid-decade fortunes, former TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente inherited a program that had won just five games in three years. About Utah State, I've said a few times that the Aggies were so good recently that it was easy to forget how awful they had been not too long ago; for Memphis, it was the exact opposite. The roster was a mess devoid of either talent or discipline. Fan support had dwindled considerably. The Liberty Bowl had gone from "historic venue (with turkey legs the size of your torso)" to "empty dump."
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Memphis program comes from simply saying that when the Tigers began the Fuente era with a 20-17 loss to UT-Martin -- a decent FCS program, but an FCS program nonetheless, one that would lose to Eastern Kentucky by 12 points a few weeks later -- it was hard to feign surprise.
But despite the generally awful state of the program in September, Memphis began to improve.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 31.9, Memphis 18.3 (minus-13.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Opponent 26.5, Memphis 17.7 (minus-8.8)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Memphis 28.0, Opponent 23.7 (plus-4.3)
November is a pretty bluesy month, but for a program located in a bluesy city, Memphis found quite a bit of sunshine in the 11th month. The defense had begun to come around against Rice in early October, but the offense found its way back to average late in the season. And it had been quite a while since "Memphis football" and "average" were even a little bit synonymous.
|Q1 Rk||113||1st Down Rk||117|
|Q2 Rk||121||2nd Down Rk||123|
|Q3 Rk||122||3rd Down Rk||119|
3. Underdog Tactics 101
When you've got nothing, it does you no benefit to pretend otherwise. And it was pretty clear in the 2012 that Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey knew they had nothing. Memphis' general offensive strategy was mostly to take the air out of the ball, run on standard downs, run on passing downs, hope to convert some third-and-shorts here and there, and try take as much time off of the clock before punting.
Now, run-first tendencies are in Fuente's and Dickey's blood no matter what.
If he can get away with it, he will run and run and run; his 2006 North Texas offense ranked sixth in the country in Adj. Run Rate (69 percent on standard downs, 47 percent on passing downs), his 2007 Utah State offense ranked 11th in the same measure, and his 2011 Texas State offense ranked 23rd in the FCS in rushing yards per game, 106th in passing. This meshes rather well with the run-first tendencies of Fuente's increasingly effective TCU offenses.
At the same time, however, he has shown that he can do balance; Utah State ranked 45th in Adj. Run Rate in 2008, New Mexico 55th in 2010. And, strangely, his 2009 New Mexico offense ranked 112th. He seems to have run-friendly tendencies, but he will do what the personnel dictates.
In 2012, personnel dictated that Memphis basically sit on the ball.
Again, though, there is hope in the fact that the offense improved late.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Jacob Karam||6'0, 205||Sr.||*** (5.6)||176||274||1,895||64.2%||14||3||23||7.7%||5.9|
|Eric Mathews||6'1, 185||Jr.||NR||3||5||24||60.0%||1||0||0||0.0%||4.8|
|Paxton Lynch||6'6, 225||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Brayden Scott||6'3, 205||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
4. The passing game came around first
Run-first or not, the Memphis passing game was most directly responsible for Memphis' late turnaround. In the first eight games of the season, quarterback (and all-around good dude) Jacob Karam completed 60 percent of his passes at 6.0 yards per pass, with six touchdowns and two interceptions. In the last four games, he completed 73 percent of his passes at 9.0, with eight touchdowns and one pick. He was 14-for-18 for 270 yards versus Tulane, 14-for-16 for 147 versus UAB, and 12-for-18 for 162 versus Southern Miss.
While since-graduated receiver Marcus Rucker certainly had a role to play in those late exploits, the biggest difference in Memphis' passing upgrade was the tight end position. Alan Cross and Jesse Milleson had combined for 14 catches and 171 yards and two touchdowns (almost all of which came from Cross) in the first eight games; in the last four, they combined for 19 catches, 228 yards, and four scores.
Throw in Tevin Jones' emergence as a deep threat (four catches for 14 yards in the first eight games, six for 151 in the last four), and you've got efficiency, a little bit of explosiveness, and overall competence in the aerial attack. Rucker, the leading receiver, is gone, but Cross, Milleson, and Jones all return, as does a solid possession receiver in Keiwone Malone. A late surge isn't a guarantee of future success, but there's a lot more reason to be optimistic about the passing game than there was 12 months ago. Hell, 10 months ago.
|Jai Steib||RB||5'11, 210||Sr.||** (5.4)||119||427||3.6||2.8||6||-18.5|
|Brandon Hayes||RB||5'8, 198||Sr.||NR||118||576||4.9||6.2||6||+0.8|
|Jacob Karam||QB||6'0, 205||Sr.||*** (5.6)||78||363||4.7||4.0||1||-5.4|
|Carl Harris||RB||5'10, 195||So.||*** (5.5)||39||175||4.5||2.6||1||-4.6|
|Eric Mathews||QB||6'1, 185||Jr.||NR||20||71||3.6||3.9||0||-3.3|
|Jaquise Cook||RB||5'7, 180||Sr.||NR||16||66||4.1||2.6||0||-3.3|
|Tevin Jones||WR||6'2, 215||So.||** (5.3)||10||32||3.2||2.0||1||-2.5|
|Robert Davis||RB||5'9, 170||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Marquis Warford||RB||5'8, 175||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Keiwone Malone||WR||5'11, 155||Jr.||**** (5.8)||59||44||476||74.6%||8.1||21.9%||61.0%||8.1||49.3|
|Alan Cross||TE||6'1, 245||So.||NR||26||23||301||88.5%||11.6||9.7%||57.7%||11.6||31.1|
|Reggie Travis||WR||6'2, 195||Jr.||** (5.2)||22||11||162||50.0%||7.4||8.2%||59.1%||7.5||16.8|
|Tevin Jones||WR||6'2, 215||So.||** (5.3)||15||10||165||66.7%||11.0||5.6%||53.3%||11.3||17.1|
|Brandon Hayes||RB||5'8, 198||Sr.||NR||14||11||37||78.6%||2.6||5.2%||42.9%||3.5||3.8|
|Jesse Milleson||TE||6'3, 241||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||10||98||90.9%||8.9||4.1%||90.9%||6.3||10.1|
|Jamere Valentine||WR||6'1, 220||Sr.||*** (5.5)||6||5||33||83.3%||5.5||2.2%||16.7%||4.7||3.4|
|Tyriq Patrick||WR||6'3, 200||So.||*** (5.5)||6||3||19||50.0%||3.2||2.2%||66.7%||3.2||2.0|
|Mose Frazier||WR||5'11, 184||So.||NR|
|Daniel Hurd||WR||6'2, 212||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Joe Craig||WR||5'11, 175||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Adrian Henderson||WR||6'0, 196||Jr.||** (5.2)|
|Sam Craft||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Jordan Devey||LT||24 career starts; 2012 2nd All-CUSA|
|Chris Schuetz||LG||6'3, 285||Sr.||** (5.2)||19 career starts|
|Al Bond||RT||6'4, 300||Jr.||** (5.2)||19 career starts|
|Nick Chartain||LG||12 career starts|
|A.J. Antonescu||C||11 career starts|
|Antonio Foster||C||6'3, 305||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11 career starts|
|Micah Simmons||RG||6'3, 285||So.||** (5.4)||3 career starts|
|Taylor Fallin||LT||6'6, 330||So.||** (5.4)||2 career starts|
|Deandre Simmons||LG||6'1, 270||Jr.||NR|
|Michael Stannard||C||6'2, 285||So.||** (5.2)|
|Markeith Minnick||LT||6'5, 300||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Sam Thomas||LG||6'2, 285||RSFr.||NR|
|Christopher Roberson||RT||6'5, 315||RSFr.||NR|
|Kevin McIntyre||RG||6'4, 302||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Nykiren Wellington||OL||6'7, 325||Jr.||** (5.3)|
5. The line will come around last
There was one other late-season development that helped Memphis' offense to get going: Brandon Hayes began to get more and more of the carries that were going to Jai Steib earlier in the year. Intended starter Jerrell Rhodes was kicked off the team three games into the season, and while Steib certainly tried to carry the load, Hayes overtook him late. He carried 19 times for 127 yards versus UAB and 19 for 115 versus Southern Miss. Yes, that was UAB and Southern Miss, but it was still definitive progress.
Hayes showed some nice potential, but Memphis runners in general will likely be held back by a line that was indeed decent in short-yardage situations but didn't create too many opportunities overall. There is some experience -- five players with starting experience, 54 career starts -- but all-conference tackle Jordan Devey is gone, and one would think that any overall improvement would be marginal. If the line DOES come around, however, Memphis' November performance could be replicable on a larger scale.
|Q1 Rk||93||1st Down Rk||77|
|Q2 Rk||41||2nd Down Rk||61|
|Q3 Rk||71||3rd Down Rk||57|
6. Odom fan club
Full disclosure: I'm a Barry 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.
There's still obviously some work to be done, especially in the secondary, where three of the top five tacklers are now gone, but the front seven is going to be pretty good, and at this point I have no reason to doubt that Odom will figure something out in pass defense as well.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Martin Ifedi||DE||6'3, 265||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||29.5||4.5%||11||7.5||0||0||2||0|
|Johnnie Farms||NT||6'2, 300||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||27.5||4.2%||9.5||2.5||0||1||2||1|
|Corey Jones||DE||6'3, 265||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||23.5||3.6%||6||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Terry Redden||NT||6'2, 270||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||21.0||3.2%||6.5||2||0||0||1||0|
|Ricky Hunter||DE||6'3, 275||So.||** (5.3)||12||18.5||2.9%||6.5||3||0||1||1||1|
|Kendrick Golden||DAWG||6'4, 215||Jr.||NR||12||13.0||2.0%||2.5||1||0||1||1||0|
|Melvin Jones||DE||6'1, 265||Jr.||NR||12||10.0||1.5%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Carl Mitchell||DE||6'3, 260||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Latarius Brady||NT||6'2, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kewan Alfred||DE||6'3, 240||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Anthony Brown||WILL||6'4, 245||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||49.0||7.6%||3||1||0||0||0||1|
|Charles Harris||MLB||6'2, 243||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||48.5||7.5%||1.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Tank Jakes||WILL||5'11, 225||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||39.0||6.0%||8.5||2||1||1||0||0|
|Wynton McManis||SAM||6'1, 220||So.||** (5.4)||12||19.0||2.9%||2.5||0||1||0||1||1|
|Leonard Pegues||MLB||5'11, 225||So.||** (5.2)||12||9.5||1.5%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ryan Coleman||SAM||6'3, 225||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Jackson Dillon||LB||6'6, 230||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
7. A downright exciting front seven
When it comes to defense, there are different ways to define the word "exciting." It could mean that a defense is making a lot of plays. It could be that the defense is GIVING UP a lot of plays, therefore creating a more potentially explosive game overall. For Memphis' front seven, it was a little bit of both. The Tigers were vastly above average when it came to keeping runners close to the line of scrimmage and, on occasion, making stops in the backfield. But if they weren't making a nice stop, they were giving up a very big play. Memphis was in the top 50 of overall tackles for loss and top 30 in both Opportunity Rate (giving up second-level opportunities) and Stuff Rate (making plays behind the line) but still ranked 97th in Rushing PPP+ (explosiveness). That's a tough combination to pull off.
In 2013, there's no reason to think the defense will make fewer plays. The top seven linemen and three of the top four linebackers return. In all, the players responsible for 84 percent of last season's tackles for loss return, including 10 of the 11 players who logged at least 2.5. This is an exciting-in-a-good-way unit … and it might still pretty exciting-in-a-bad-way, too.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Lonnie Ballentine||FS||6'3, 220||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||53.0||8.2%||0.5||0.5||3||5||0||1|
|Bobby McCain||CB||5'11, 190||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||31.0||4.8%||3.5||1.5||0||3||0||0|
|Reggis Ball||SS||5'11, 200||So.||NR||12||20.5||3.2%||0.5||0||0||0||0||1|
|Bakari Hollier||CB||5'10, 195||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||16.0||2.5%||1||0||0||3||0||0|
|Andrew Gaines||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||12||9.5||1.5%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Anthony Watson||SS||6'1, 190||Sr.||** (5.4)||9||7.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Morley||CB||5'11, 185||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
8. If a DB gets hurt…
…trouble could soon follow. Memphis had remarkable injuries luck on defense last year, with only a handful of regulars or potential regulars missing serious time. Seven defensive linemen, five linebackers, and nine defensive backs played in all 12 games; that's almost definitely not going to happen again in 2013. But while the linebacking corps could potentially absorb some less-than-significant losses without a drop-off, and the line almost certainly could do the same, the secondary probably cannot. There are barely enough interesting entities to fill a two-deep; if safety Lonnie Ballentine or corner Bobby McCain in particular were to go down, the drop-off could be significant.
The starting 11 for this Memphis defense is pretty intriguing; whether it remains intriguing over the course of 12 games depends on how many (and which) of the 11 stay upright all or most of the year.
|Tom Hornsey||6'3, 210||Sr.||60||43.4||2||9||25||56.7%|
|Bobby McCain||KR||5'11, 190||Jr.||28||25.8||0|
|Bakari Hollier||KR||5'10, 195||Jr.||5||19.0||0|
|Keiwone Malone||PR||5'11, 155||Jr.||22||11.9||0|
|Special Teams F/+||15|
|Field Goal Pct||118|
|Kick Returns Avg||44|
|Punt Returns Avg||21|
9. Addition by subtraction
Paul Henriques had a ferocious leg, that much is certain. With Henriques' kickoffs, Tom Hornsey's punts, good kick returns from Bobby McCain and great punt returns from Keiwone Malone, Memphis put together a high-quality special teams unit, easily the best of the three. But Henriques was also a pretty awful place-kicker, one who made less than 50 percent of his <40-yard field goals and missed two PATs. Depending (obviously) on the quality of his replacement, Memphis might be willing to trade a few touchbacks for a higher rate of 3-pointers going through the uprights.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|14-Sep||at Middle Tennessee||99|
|16-Nov||at South Florida||67|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||115|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||77|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / -1.2|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (7, 8)|
10. Solidify your gains
This has been a pretty bullish Memphis preview, all things considered. I like the offense's potential for sustaining November's gains to some degree (think 70th to 90th in Off. F/+ this year), and I think the defense could be a top-60 or top-70 unit barring injuries in the secondary. That alone would make this the best Memphis team since at least 2008, and it's probably too optimistic a viewpoint overall.
That said, even if Memphis did improve to the No. 60-80 level, it probably wouldn't be enough to get the Tigers to a bowl game unless the Liberty Bowl turned into one hell of a home field.
Only four of Memphis' 12 opponents are projected worse than 67th overall, so even a good Memphis team wouldn't have many sure wins; of course, at the same time only two opponents are projected better than 53rd, and of the six in-betweeners, three come to Memphis. So I guess there is technically a path to bowl eligibility, but I should probably tap the brakes a little and point out that a top-80 ranking, sustained defensive gains, and another four- or five-win season would be remarkable progress considering where Memphis was not too long ago.
In the former future Metro Conference, now known as the American, Memphis' future outlook is so much brighter than it was just 12 months ago. But there is still quite a bit of work to be done.
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