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In 2017, Memphis’ full football potential might finally be realized

After 27 wins in three years, the Tigers still look like they’re just getting started.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We're located close to and easily accessible to good football locations. Mississippi's been very good to us, and we have a bunch of guys with ties in Texas, which isn't very far away. Texas kids understand the offseason part of it; it's so strong there. It's pretty easy to access several states with our location. We've tried to draw a big circle. But I think, first and foremost, you have to do a great job servicing the city we live in, doing a great job with the coaches in Memphis, evaluating those kids and getting them to stay in town. There's a lot of talent in the city.

Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach (2012-15)

Memphis’ last head coach identified the upside of the job. You are in a talent-heavy city, and you don’t have to drive far to find even more. Recruiting is lifeblood, and the Tigers should always succeed at it.

Granted, you still need a program to sell to recruits. For large swaths of its history, Memphis has not had that. And while certain programs are known for hiring up-and-coming head coaches, UM hasn't had the same luck.

Over the last 60 years, Memphis has hired only two coaches who succeeded enough to move on to bigger jobs. Fred Pancoast did in the mid-1970s, winning 22 games in three years before moving down I-40 to Vanderbilt.

Fuente was the second. He took over in 2012 with the Tigers having won just five games in the previous three seasons. They won seven combined games in Fuente's first two years, then won 19 in his next two. Administrators and boosters had reinvested, and there was nothing that seemed particularly unsustainable about the way Fuente had built the program. But when he left for Virginia Tech, there had to be unease.

Memphis didn’t end up hiring a Fuente assistant in the name of lineage. Instead, the program ended up betting on itself. Instead of pretending that Fuente’s recipe was the only one that could work in the River City, UM hired another up-and-comer: Todd Graham protege Norvell.

So far, so good. With a new quarterback and new coaching, Memphis went 8-5 in 2016, actually improving its S&P+ ranking by 11 spots (from 55th to 44th). There were missteps — a 29-point home loss to Tulsa, a 20-point bowl loss to WKU — but the Tigers demonstrated remarkable upside. They beat Kansas and Bowling Green by a combined 120-10. They beat Temple and Houston. A week after the Tulsa humbling, they went to SMU and won by 44.

One season is not a referendum, but this becomes even more encouraging when you realize Memphis returns a lot of last year’s upside. The Tigers bring back their quarterback (Riley Ferguson), top four running backs, top three receiving targets, four starting offensive linemen, five of six defensive linemen, four of five linebackers, an incredible punter, and incredible return man.

Turnover in the secondary is a concern and, depending on the replacements, could lead to regression. But with the AAC undergoing its annual transition from one set of up-and-coming coaches to another — Temple, Houston, USF, and Cincinnati are breaking in new leaders — the Tigers might be the most known quantity this side of Navy, only with more upside.

We could be witnessing the birth of a fully realized Memphis football program. According to the 247Sports Composite, Norvell just signed the second-best class in the conference, a year after signing the third-best. He inherited a large base of athleticism, and he’s building on it. And in his first year in succeeding Memphis’ most successful coach in a generation, he maybe have improved the product.

Fuente will always be known as the guy who got Memphis off the ground, but there’s a chance Fuente’s success was only the beginning. If Norvell continues to build, he, too, will move on — it’s the AAC circle of life — but he might leave behind a program even more attractive than the one he inherited. This is a good time to be a Memphis Tigers fan.


2016 in review

2016 Memphis statistical profile.

On average, Memphis was an exciting, high-upside team, one of the best in AAC. But that was the average; from week to week, the plot twisted.

  • First 3 games (3-0): Avg. percentile performance: 77% (~top 30) | Avg. score: UM 52, Opp 9 | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.5, Opp 4.1
  • Next 5 games (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 36% (~top 80) | Avg. score: Opp 38, UM 29 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.3, UM 6.0
  • Last 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (~top 40) | Avg. score: UM 41, Opp 32 | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.4, Opp 6.1

Memphis began by playing awesome defense against bad teams, then finding an offensive groove in a 77-3 humiliation of Bowling Green. From that point, the offense was steady, but the defense experienced drastic ups and downs.

The Tigers finished having allowed 5.8 yards per play; that’s an accomplishment considering they didn’t allow between 4.5 and 5.9 per play in any one game all year. It was either 4.4 or fewer or 6.0 or greater. They allowed 40-plus points five times and held six opponents to 17 or fewer. The Tigers’ bend-don’t-break approach either completely worked or comprehensively failed, and it was partially determined by whether or not an opponent could run the football.

Memphis’s defense ranked 104th in Rushing S&P+ and 58th in Passing S&P+ and now has to replace a good portion of its secondary. Strength and weakness could flip, and how well the Tigers defend the pass could determine whether we’re looking at the best team in the AAC or a team dependent on winning shootouts.

With this offense, by the way, the Tigers could win plenty of shootouts. At least, that will be the case as long as a new/old coordinator hire pays off.


Offense

Memphis offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Norvell’s first offensive coordinator hire was inspired. Chip Long, a member of both the Todd Graham and Bobby Petrino trees, crafted a fast, pass-heavy system that relied on efficient passing and big rushes, and after a slow rushing start, everything clicked.

Leading rusher Doroland Dorceus rushed 21 times for just 61 yards (2.9 per carry) in early wins over SEMO and Kansas. From that point forward, he averaged 6.7 per carry. Meanwhile, backups Patrick Taylor Jr., Darrell Henderson, and Tony Pollard — all freshmen — combined to average 5.6 yards per carry while splitting about 16 carries per game.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Cincinnati
Doroland Dorceus
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

That was more than enough help for Riley Ferguson. After some early ups and downs of his own, he found one hell of a cruising altitude.

  • Riley Ferguson, first 3 games: 67% completion rate, 13.8 yards per completion, 2.2% INT rate, 180.3 passer rating
  • Ferguson, next 3 games: 64% completion rate, 11.1 yards per completion, 3.8% INT rate, 119.4 passer rating
  • Ferguson, last 7 games: 61% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 1.6% INT rate, 156.7 passer rating

Ferguson threw three interceptions in a 48-28 loss to Ole Miss, then played things safe against Temple and Tulane. He was mostly awesome from that point forward.

Either the run or the pass worked in basically every game, and Memphis was never held below 24 points. It was an impressive enough performance that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, looking to bring in new energy, hired Long away from UM.

Norvell stayed in house for Long’s replacement. Darrell Dickey served as Memphis’ offensive coordinator in 1988-89 before moving on and eventually becoming North Texas head coach from 1998-2006. Fuente brought him back to town to serve as the resident old hand and offensive coordinator.

Dickey stayed on as co-coordinator in 2016, then took back the solo OC job this offseason. Assuming continuity in philosophy, there should be plenty of continuity on the field.

Ferguson brings back last year’s top three targets, including the incredibly underrated Anthony Miller. The AAC had plenty of offensive standouts in 2016, and the diminutive Miller got overshadowed a bit. Still, his raw numbers — 95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns, 10.7 yards per target, 52 percent success rate — were incredible. He had eight 100-yard receiving yards, including a 250-yarder against Tulsa. In his last two games of the year, he caught 26 passes for 320 yards and five scores. Damn.

Senior Phil Mayhue and sophomore utility man Pollard also return, and while tight end Daniel Montiel does not, sophomore returnees Kedarian Jones and Sean Dykes combined to catch 12 of 20 passes for a decent 122 yards. Throw in other youngsters like sophomores Pop Williams, Mechane Slade, and Damonte Coxie, plus maybe 2017 star recruit Nick Robinson, and you’ve got a hell of a receiving corps.

Memphis will likely pass to set up the run once more, and it will probably work. The run, then, should also thrive. Dorceus and the sophomores all return, as do six players with starting experience. The ground attack was volatile last year — 120th in stuff rate, 37th in rushes of 20-plus yards — but experience should smooth that out.

Losing a star coordinator can frequently lead to a change in fortunes, but it’s not hard to see Norvell’s attempt at continuity paying off. Dickey knows the job and the personnel, and that personnel could do big things.

NCAA Football: Temple at Memphis
Riley Ferguson (4) and Phil Mayhue (89)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Memphis defensive radar

The defense was the first thing to click for Fuente’s Memphis. Fuente hired Barry Odom, who oversaw rapid improvement; the Tigers ranked 117th in Def. S&P+ in 2011, then improved to 61st, 40th, and 20th over the next three years. Following the departure of both Odom and a lot of starters, however, it fell back to 79th in 2015. And in 2016, an attempt at havoc resulted in drastic ups and downs.

Defensive coordinator Chris Ball also comes from the Todd Graham tree, which means he believes in speed and aggression. Memphis ranked sixth in DB havoc rate last year in 29th in PDs-to-INCs, the percentage of opponent incompletions that were the result of an interception or breakup. Ten Tigers defensed at least three passes, and four DBs defensed at least eight.

This would have resulted in more success had the run defense been better. Memphis allowed a 48 percent rushing success rate, 110th in the country, and couldn’t come up with enough stuffs (85th in stuff rate) to make that work. This became a bend-don’t-break defense of sorts, much better at preventing big plays than making them but not really all that great at either.

There’s an optimistic and a pessimistic way of looking at Memphis’ defense in 2016.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Navy
Genard Avery
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
  • Pessimistic: The run defense stunk, and now the secondary has to replace five of last year’s top seven. One of the returnees is a sophomore (Austin Hall). Corner Arthur Maulet was by far the best play-maker on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and 15 passes defensed, and he’s gone. The pass defense will definitely regress, and there’s not enough talent up front to make up the difference.
  • Optimistic: Yes, there’s turnover in the back, but there’s still talent and experience. And the front seven does boast some play-makers in guys like linebacker Genard Avery (11 TFLs, five sacks), end Ernest Suttles (5.5 TFLs), tackle Jonathan Wilson (six TFLs), and linebacker Jackson Dillon (6 TFLs in 2015). Experience up front could counter turnover in the back.

The defensive front should indeed be better, but Memphis’ fate is pretty closely tied to how quickly the secondary can rebuild. And there’s an old-versus-new vibe here.

Senior Shaun Rupert (a Missouri transfer) was solid in a backup role, and seniors Christian Slaughter, Jamil Collins, and Caelon Harden could play a role. And they’ll be challenged by a lot of high-upside newcomers — redshirt freshman safeties Josh Perry and Thomas PIckens, JUCO transfers Tito Windham and Marcus Green, mid-three-star freshmen Terrell Carter and Quindon Lewis, etc. Find a decent rotation, and the defense should make enough stops to serve the offense well. That’s obviously not a given, though.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Memphis
Jonathan Cook (14)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Memphis had one other thing going for it in 2016: maybe the best special teams unit in the country. The Tigers ranked second in kick return success rate (Tony Pollard averaged 28.1 yards per return with two scores), fourth in kickoff success rate (68 percent of Jake Elliott’s kicks were touchbacks), fifth in punt success rate (Spencer Smith averaged a booming 45.1 yards per kick), and 16th in field goal efficiency (Elliott made an incredible 12 of 15 field goals longer than 40 yards). And the relative weakness (punt returns) wasn’t all that weak — Memphis still ranked 42nd there.

Pollard and Smith should ensure that Memphis still has strong special teams, but the loss of Elliott hurts. Maybe this is only a top-15 or 20 unit instead of top-1. Regardless, Smith and Pollard ensure it’s a strength.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug UL-Monroe 121 20.8 89%
9-Sep at Central Florida 78 3.1 57%
16-Sep UCLA 34 -2.0 45%
23-Sep Southern Illinois NR 25.1 93%
30-Sep at Georgia State 113 12.9 77%
6-Oct at Connecticut 125 17.0 84%
14-Oct Navy 71 6.5 65%
19-Oct at Houston 49 -3.9 41%
27-Oct Tulane 94 13.6 78%
3-Nov at Tulsa 77 3.0 57%
18-Nov SMU 81 10.4 73%
25-Nov East Carolina 100 14.8 80%
Projected S&P+ Rk 61
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 27 / 97
Projected wins 8.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.2 (58)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 65 / 75
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / -0.4
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (87%, 51%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.1 (0.9)

If the secondary avoids the type of regression typically associated with turnover, Memphis will be awesome.

That’s it. That’s the whole list of “ifs” separating the Tigers from being a top-40 team this year.

That’s a hell of an “if,” though. Turnover in the secondary is strongly correlated with regression, and because of it, Memphis is projected just 61st in S&P+ — 27th on offense but 97th on defense.

Even with this projected regression, though, S&P+ sees Memphis as a favorite in 10 of 12 games and as an under-four-point underdog in the other two. Even with a few relative tossups (five games between 41 and 65 percent win probability), the Tigers should be looking at a minimum of seven regular wins this season and a maximum of ... 12, I guess? And that’s with a pretty bad defense. Imagine if the defensive backfield is stable.

This should be a really fun season at the Liberty Bowl. Trips to UCF, Houston, and Tulsa make Memphis anything but a slam-dunk favorite in the AAC West, but every game is winnable, and the Tigers should take their fair share.

Five years ago, Memphis was coming off of 32 losses in 37 games and hoping that, in Fuente, it had found its program savior. It had. And now, in Norvell, the Tigers may have found the guy who can top Fuente.


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