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The AAC West crown goes through Memphis until proven otherwise

Memphis must replace the two guys you most remember from last year, but the Tigers return virtually everyone else.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida
Tony Pollard (1)
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

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.

Justin 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. This is a good time to be a Memphis Tigers fan.

Fair to say, I was pretty bullish on Mike Norvell’s Memphis Tigers heading into last year. The secondary was facing a rebuild, and as it turned out, thanks to injuries the defensive line would, too. I was prepared for defensive regression, but an offense that had scored more than 40 points in four of its last five games returned most of its pieces.

This was a team built for track meets. it is increasingly becoming the Memphis way. In Fuente’s second year as head coach (2013), the Tigers ranked 109th in Off. S&P+; the offense has improved significantly in three of the last four years. In Fuente’s third year, the Tiger defense peaked at 20th in Def. S&P+; it has plummeted twice in three seasons.

Last year, the reversal was complete: Memphis fell all the way to 102nd in defense and rose to fourth on offense. The Tigers averaged 49 points per game and allowed 35. They allowed at least 31 points and won on five occasions. They scored 55 and lost once.

Despite the points allowed, this was the best Memphis team in a generation. After a slow start, at least.

  • First 4 games (3-1): Avg. score: Opp 36, UM 36 | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.4, Opp 6.0 | Avg. percentile performance: 40% (63% offense, 27% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-12.3 PPG
  • Next 7 games (7-0): Avg. score: UM 54, Opp 28 | Avg. yards per play: UM 7.9, Opp 5.3 | Avg. percentile performance: 80% (79% offense, 41% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-12.3 PPG

From 1962-68, Memphis finished between 11th and 27th in S&P+ five times. Since then, the Tigers had managed only one top-30 finish — they were 29th in 1992, going 6-5, with every loss by five or fewer points, against a rugged schedule.

In 2017, they were 20th. This was the realization of the form Memphis was moving toward for quite a while.

Now it’s time for a new form, at least somewhat.

It’s fair to say that Norvell teams are always going to be pretty pointsy, but with the loss of offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey (now at Texas A&M), quarterback Riley Ferguson, receiver Anthony Miller, and all-conference lineman (and four-year starter) Gabe Kuhn up front, there will be offensive regression. Hell, when you have the No. 4 offense in the country, there’s almost nowhere to go but down.

That means the defense has to improve. It should do just that. Memphis won the AAC West by two games despite having three freshmen and a sophomore among the top six linemen, losing a key linebacker before the season, and having five freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary rotation. Norvell added three JUCO transfers and has a few more exciting young DBs to add to the mix if there’s any room. The defense is built to improve in 2018, then improve again in 2019.

If Norvell has a quarterback — and he’s got some pretty exciting candidates — then this offense will still have a high ceiling. And with fewer freshmen in the rotation, the defense will have a higher floor. It’s easy to proclaim Houston as the West favorite this season because of Ed Oliver, the new offensive coordinator, etc. But S&P+ favors Memphis in 10 of 12 games this fall, and UH has to come to the Liberty Bowl on the last weekend of the regular season. Sounds like we shouldn’t crown the Cougars just yet.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Memphis at Central Florida
Mike Norvell
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

The best offenses don’t wait until third down. Memphis’ average third-down distance was 7.4 yards, 95th in the country. To that end, it’s impressive that the Tigers managed to rank 32nd in third-down conversion rate. You’ve got to have a good QB to pull that off.

But the secret to Memphis’ success was avoiding third downs altogether. Only 18 percent of the Tigers’ 2017 snaps came on third down — fifth-best in the country behind only Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, UCF, and FAU.

The former (good QB) could be a question mark this fall, at least for a little while. The latter, though? Memphis had the biggest big plays in the country, finishing first in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays), and while Miller and No. 2 receiver Anthony Mayhue were big reasons for that, so were running back Darrell Henderson (8.9 yards per carry), receiver Damonte Coxie (15.4 yards per catch), tight end Sean Dykes (23.1 per catch), and utility man Tony Pollard (14.9 per catch, 7.7 per carry). And 223-pound running back Patrick Taylor Jr. (5.5 per carry) wasn’t exactly chopped liver.

Memphis returns more proven big-play ability than anyone in the AAC besides maybe UCF. That’s an amazing thing to say considering the big-play ability the Tigers lost.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Memphis
Patrick Taylor Jr.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Memphis at Tulsa
Darrell Henderson
David D. Stacy-USA TODAY Sports

The Norvell offense, captained by Chip Long (now with Notre Dame) in 2016 and Dickey last year, is a delight. It insists on relentless pace and spacing and utilizes every talent a given skill guy has. It also utilizes a lot of skill guys. Here’s a look at last year’s skill corps in order of intended touches (carries and pass targets), with returnees in bold:

  • RB Patrick Taylor Jr.: 184 for 1,014 yards (157 carries, 27 targets)
  • TB Darrell Henderson: 166 for 1,380 yards (130 carries, 36 targets)
  • WR Anthony Miller: 158 for 1,509 yards (10 carries, 148 targets)
  • RB/WR Tony Pollard: 90 for 766 yards (30 carries, 60 targets)
  • WR Phil Mayhue: 64 for 521 (64 targets)
  • TB Doroland Dorceus: 43 for 237 yards (39 carries, four targets)
  • QB Riley Ferguson: 34 for 163 yards (33 carries, one target)
  • TE Joey Magnifico: 30 for 280 yards (30 targets)
  • WR Damonte Coxie: 29 for 323 yards (29 targets)
  • TE Sean Dykes: 26 for 353 (one carry, 25 targets)
  • WR John “Pop” Williams: 18 for 163 (two carries, 16 targets)

Losing Miller hurts. The soon-to-be draftee had 17 games of 100-plus receiving yards in his three-year career and 10 of 150-plus. He damn near carried the Tigers to an AAC title game win over UCF, catching 14 balls for 195 yards and three scores.

Still, he was one of many cogs for this offense, and three other players who accounted for at least 750 combined rushing and receiving yards last year return. And 2017 understudies like Coxie and Williams did everything they could to prove they were ready for more responsibilities. They’ll have to fend off a new batch of youngsters and newcomers, though: JUCO receiver Antonio Gibson, sophomore receiver Jahod Booker, and any number of incoming freshmen like Troy Hurst or Kenny Gainwell.

While Kuhn is gone, he’s the only starting lineman gone. Left tackle Trevon Tate is a three-year starter and all-conference performer, and four other returnees have combined for 75 career starts. Oh yeah, and four-star redshirt freshman Obinna Eze and six other three-star newcomers could round out the rotation.

So yeah, the skill corps is fine, and the line is fine. What about the signal caller? Or the play caller?

Memphis should be fine at QB. Neither sophomore David Moore nor junior Brady White seized control of the job this spring, but both have likely upside. Moore, a mid-three-star sophomore, completed seven of 10 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown while rushing eight times for 47 yards as a backup last year. Meanwhile, White is a former blue-chipper — the No. 68 player (and No. 4 pro-style QB) in the class of 2015 — who originally signed with Arizona State when Norvell was offensive coordinator. There should be enough competition there that the winner clears a pretty high bar.

At offensive coordinator, Norvell went with Kenny Dillingham. It was quite the Todd Graham move. Graham always promoted Norvell to his offensive co-coordinator at Pitt in 2011, when Norvell was just 29 years old. Dillingham? 28. He was an assistant at Chapparal High School in Arizona barely five years ago (Graham was also fond of giving high school coaches chances at the college level) and followed Norvell from ASU to Memphis. He knows the system, and this offense will always have Norvell’s fingerprints on it.

This won’t be a top-five offense again this year, but forgive me if I can’t worry too much about it.

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Arizona State
Brady White
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

It’s certainly fair to worry about the defense, though. Chris Ball also came to Memphis from ASU, but he hasn’t found nearly as much traction as the ASU-to-UM transplants on offense. He hasn’t really found any, actually.

At least he had youth to blame last year. The secondary had to replace five of its top seven from 2017, then lost starting safety Shaun Rupert after just three games. And the defensive line, already leaning heavily on sophomore tackle Jonathan Wilson, got just five games out of starting end Ernest Suttles and one out of starting tackle Jared Gentry. That meant lots of playing time for true freshman O’Bryan Goodson and redshirt freshmen John Tate and Joseph Dorceus.

NCAA Football: Houston at Memphis
Curtis Akins (7)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

There was plenty of upside: Goodson, Wilson, Dorceus, and senior-to-be Emmanuel Cooper each recorded at least four tackles for loss, and six freshman DBs combined for seven interceptions and 22 pass breakups. Memphis still ranked a healthy 29th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) and fifth in DB havoc rate. But freshmen will be freshmen — there were still tons of breakdowns.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis
Austin Hall
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis still easily won the West, though. And now all those freshmen are sophomores.

The linebacking corps takes a hit with the loss of KAT backer (a DE/OLB hybrid) Genard Avery, who moved from WILL to KAT when Jackson Dillon got hurt and exploded for 22 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. But at least Dillon’s back now, as are senior WILL Curtis Akins, sophomore MIKE Tim Hart, and junior Bryce Huff, last year’s backup KAT. And you could almost count STAR safety Austin Hall (a nickel back of sorts) as another linebacker — his stature (6’2, 215) and stat line (eight TFLs, eight passes defensed) almost demand it.

There’s attacking talent at every level of this defense, and it’s clear that Ball wants to attack, glitches or no glitches. In theory, experience alone should lead to fewer glitches and a higher defensive rating. But you could rank 90th and still have improved. We’ll see just how much the upside can trump the downside.

Special Teams

UM ranked first in Special Teams S&P+ in 2016, but the loss of star kicker Jake Elliott hurt. Tony Pollard’s terrifying kick returns (he averaged an incomprehensible 40 yards per kick return and scored four times) and decent work from punter Nick Jacobs assured that the Tigers only fell to 42nd in ST S&P+, but it was still a drop. And now Jacobs is gone.

Sophomore Riley Patterson (9-for-10 on FGs under 40 yards but just 2-for-6 beyond 40) needs to find a bit more range, but Pollard alone means Memphis will have the special teams advantage as often as not.

Seriously, though, a 40-yard average and four touchdowns? That shouldn’t be possible.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Mercer NR 27.2 94%
8-Sep at Navy 85 5.9 63%
14-Sep Georgia State 113 18.7 86%
22-Sep South Alabama 109 17.1 84%
28-Sep at Tulane 98 9.1 70%
6-Oct Connecticut 124 22.3 90%
13-Oct UCF 17 -6.3 36%
20-Oct at Missouri 30 -6.3 36%
3-Nov at East Carolina 125 17.7 85%
10-Nov Tulsa 108 16.7 83%
16-Nov at SMU 74 3.5 58%
23-Nov Houston 59 5.5 62%
Projected S&P+ Rk 42
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 13 / 103
Projected wins 8.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.2 (44)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 71 / 75
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 15 / 13.8
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 54% (44%, 64%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.3 (0.7)

It’s hard to feel fully confident in a team that is replacing a star quarterback, and after throwing for nearly 8,000 yards in two years, I’d say Riley Ferguson qualified for that label. And just because Ferguson himself succeeded the seemingly irreplaceable Paxton Lynch two years earlier doesn’t mean his replacement will automatically be as good.

Still, it’s hard to worry too much, isn’t it? Memphis hasn’t had shaky quarterbacking since 2011 and has had a fun receiving corps since about 2014. The Tigers return a ton of high-end skill guys and won’t be relying on freshman defenders this year.

Memphis probably won’t be as good as it was last year, but Houston and any other West hopeful will still have to catch up to the Tigers, and S&P+ — which projects them 42nd overall — has them favored in seven of eight AAC games.

Until proven otherwise, the AAC West title goes through the Liberty Bowl.

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