By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Memphis had been wasting away in obscurity in Conference USA before moving to the American Athletic Conference last fall. The transition to a more difficult league and corresponding slate of games did nothing to help the Tigers' cause, as they finished a dismal 3-9.
It marked the fifth straight season in which they have had four or fewer victories.
They dropped their first two games against Duke (28-14) and Middle Tennessee (17-15) before picking up a solid win against Arkansas State. However, the good times did not last, with the team dropping four straight contests to open up its AAC schedule. A win over non-FBS squad UT-Martin and a South Florida unit that won two games all season were the only other victories for the Tigers.
Justin Fuente is now in his third season as head coach and the returns on the field have not led to much optimism that a five-year postseason absence is coming to an end any time soon. However, there is still plenty of hope coming from Fuente.
"I've tried to talk to our guys, not in terms of the season or the games or the win or the loss or the points scored or points allowed, but it's all in our preparation ultimately leading up to our performance, our ability to have the discipline to continue that through a long period of time," Fuente said during AAC media day. "That's why there's so many upsets, ups and downs during seasons. It's very difficult to maintain that throughout the season."
OFFENSE: Starting a freshman at quarterback was Fuente's choice last season. Paxton Lynch stepped in and led the way for one of the worst offenses in the AAC, and the country as a whole. The Tigers ranked next-to-last in the AAC in total offense (311.5 ypg), scoring (19.5 ppg) and they were one of two teams in the league to average fewer than 200 passing yards per game (173.2 ypg).
Lynch was thrown into the fire right away and it showed as he tossed 10 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns. In fact, Lynch had just a single game in which he threw for multiple scores, which he did against Cincinnati. Lynch did complete a solid 58.2 percent of his pass attempts, but wasn't asked to stretch the field with his arm all that often. He also didn't make many plays with his legs, tallying only 127 rushing yards in 12 games. He should improve in his second season, but by how much is the question.
Luckily, Lynch can still turn around and hand the ball off to Brandon Hayes, who was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA back in January.
"We're excited to have Brandon returning for another season," Fuente said at the time the announcement was made. "Not only do we get back our leading rusher from the past two seasons, but Brandon's experience and leadership will be an asset for our younger players as we continue to build."
Hayes certainly has the talent to take pressure off of the passing game. He rushed for 860 yards and 5 scores on just 201 carries last season. He posted eight games with at least 70 yards on the ground, including a pair of 100-yard efforts. Doroland Dorceus will step in as the primary backup with Marquis Warford now gone.
Two starters return to the receiving corps, but that doesn't mean much considering last year's unit underachieved. Joe Craig led the team in receptions (37) and receiving yards (338), while Sam Craft (31 receptions, 337 yards, 1 TD), Keiwone Malone (25 receptions, 311 yards, 1 TD) and Tevin Jones (25 receptions 292 yards, 1 TD) all contributed as well. Malone is the most likely to turn into a star, while tight end Alan Cross (14 receptions, 147 yards, 2 TDs) is a sturdy target.
The offensive line will be slotting in newcomers in the middle, with tackles Taylor Fallin and Al Bond the only returning starters.
DEFENSE: The uncertainty and pessimism that has been bred on offense does not stretch to the defense. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom had plenty of talent to work with last season when the Tigers ranked among the top-40 teams in the country in total yards allowed (370.7 ypg).
The Tigers were particularly effective against the run, ranking 12th in the country (116.3 ypg). It helps when you have mammoths up front like Martin Ifedi, who abused opposing ball-carriers last season. The First-Team All-AAC selection was second in the AAC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14.5). He is joined by returning starters Ricky Hunter (12.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Terry Redden (7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) in the front part of Odom's 3-4 scheme.
Memphis is also blessed with plenty of skill at linebacker. Charles Harris is the leader of the group, having topped the team in tackles last season (74). Ryan Coleman (60 tackles) and Jackson Dillon (20 tackles, 5.5 TFL) will also be in the mix as will the hard-hitting Tank Jones, who compiled the most impressive stat line of the entire group last season, picking up 71 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 3 sacks.
There is experience on the edges as well with cornerbacks Andrew Gaines and Bobby McCain back in the fold. Gaines showed excellent skill as a tackler from the secondary, racking up 64 stops, while McCain was the opportunistic one of the duo, pulling in 6 interceptions, which tied for seventh-most in the country. Unfortunately safety remains a spot without much proven ability.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Good news and bad news greets Memphis on special teams. First- Team All-AAC kicker Jake Elliott returns for his sophomore season. He connected on 16-of-18 field goal attempts last season and showed tremendous range when he nailed a 56-yarder against USF.
Unfortunately, All-American punter Tom Hornsey is no longer around. Evan Michael, Nick Jacobs and Spencer Smith are the candidates to replace him.
OUTLOOK: The defense is legitimately terrifying, with Ifedi bashing his way into the backfield frequently, Jakes and the linebackers bringing down anyone that comes near them, and McCain's ability to make plays on the ball. What will ultimately determine Memphis' fate this season is whether or not it can finally put together some semblance of an FBS-worthy offense.
The non-conference portion of the schedule doesn't give the Tigers much hope or time to get moving in the right direction, with games at UCLA and Ole Miss in the first four weeks. They also get a rude welcome to the 2014 AAC slate when they visit conference favorite Cincinnati on Oct. 4. Fortunately, four of their final five opponents had a losing record last season, including USF and Connecticut, who they play in back-to-back home games to finish the year.
A favorable end of the campaign means the Tigers could have a shot at a bowl game if they can survive the brutal stretch early on. It is a long shot, but ff they are going to do so, Lynch will be the key.
08/22 13:01:38 ET