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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|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||106||1st Down Rk||71|
|Q2 Rk||119||2nd Down Rk||113|
|Q3 Rk||109||3rd Down Rk||120|
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.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Paxton Lynch||6'6, 225||So.||3 stars (5.5)||203||349||2056||9||10||58.2%||25||6.7%||5.0|
|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.
|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%|
|Doroland Dorceus||RB||5'10, 195||So.||2 stars (5.3)||30||173||0||5.8||5.8||43.3%|
|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)|
|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|
|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|
|Tyler Kolodny||TE||6'3, 245||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Roderick Proctor||WR||5'11, 161||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Al Bond||RG||6'4, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||27|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||42||1st Down Rk||41|
|Q2 Rk||54||2nd Down Rk||34|
|Q3 Rk||50||3rd Down Rk||59|
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.
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.
|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|
|Kendrick Golden||DAWG||6'4, 215||Sr.||NR||12||10.0||1.5%||2.0||0.0||0||1||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|
|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.
|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|
|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)|
|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|
|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.
|Jake Elliott||5'10, 160||So.||51||60.9||21||2||41.2%|
|Jake Elliott||5'10, 160||So.||24-24||9-10||90.0%||7-8||87.5%|
|Joe Craig||KR||5'11, 175||Sr.||27||26.8||0|
|Keiwone Malone||PR||5'11, 155||Sr.||25||6.4||0|
|Special Teams F/+||15|
|Field Goal Efficiency||7|
|Punt Return Efficiency||43|
|Kick Return Efficiency||71|
|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
|27-Sep||at Ole Miss||26|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-22.6% (119)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||86|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-8 / -4.4|
|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.