Memphis Can Compete for and Win the AAC

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think UCLA is overrated and should have shook Memphis like a rag doll, and those that have bought in to Memphis’ revival and thought the Tigers are much further along than previously expected.

I am a part of the latter consensus, having placed Memphis No. 2 in my Week 3 American Athletic Conference power rankings after its 42-35 thriller at the Rose Bowl, and am a firm believer that the Tigers can contend for the AAC title.

For starters, I’m not overwhelmingly shocked at Memphis’ early success, unlike most who haven’t been paying much attention to the program recently. In May, I projected a 6-6 (4-4) finish for the Tigers, accounting for four losses by October 11.

I also stated that Memphis didn’t have the talent or depth to compete at the same level as UCLA, and that was anything but accurate.

Sophomore Paxton Lynch, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound modern day behemoth, completed 17-of-23 pass attempts for 234 yards and had compiled two touchdowns just 20 minutes into the game. His 75.8 Adjusted QBR was the best number of his young career, showing that he’s got a lot to offer when AAC play rolls around.

The one-two punch of Doroland Dorceus and Brandon Hayes complemented Lynch’s respectable 11.3 yards per completion, as Memphis rumbled for 164 yards on the ground as a team off 39 carries (4.2 ypc), staying dangerously consistent with a balanced offensive attack.

But what impresses me the most is that despite having won just 12 games over the last five seasons leading up to the 2014 campaign; despite the fact that no one was giving them a chance; despite being picked to finish 7th in a non-Power 5 conference; and despite the awe and wonder of traveling from the Liberty Bowl to one of the biggest stages in all of sports, the Tigers expected to win the game.

“I told them that I was proud, but that it shouldn’t make them feel any better. We didn’t come here to just play a close game. We came here to win,” said third-year coach Justin Fuente.“The feeling that they have in their stomach is a good feeling. That’s a feeling of ownership and pride in the program.

“When you come up a little short on something that you have really sold out to try and accomplish, it should hurt. But it shouldn’t deter you from setting out and trying to accomplish something else. The measure of the man is how he responds and reacts to adversity.”

Those aren’t the words of a coach that wanted to get his small school players in and out of a hostile environment with their tails behind their legs and a participation ribbon to make them feel better. No, those are the words from a coach that has already created a new culture for a program that was previously unstable—a winning culture.

It didn’t start this year, either. Memphis took a significant step forward in 2013, but went unrecognized due to its meager 3-9 record. The Tigers were beaten by an average of 18.9 points in their eight losses during the 2012 season, compared to 12.6 in 2013 (including the two-game collapse to in the season where it lost to Temple and Connecticut by a combined 55 points).

Memphis went 1-6 against bowl teams last season, but was never beaten by more than 14 points. It fell to ACC Coastal winner Duke 28-14 in the opener, but was tied with the Blue Devils 14-14 heading into the fourth quarter. The Tigers actually held a touchdown lead over UCF—the eventual Fiesta Bowl champ—in the fourth quarter before losing 24-17. They had a late third quarter lead against Houston and lost, went punch-for-punch with Cincinnati for three quarters, and nearly erased a 21-point deficit to Louisville in another seven-point loss.

It was a rarity that Memphis wasn’t competitive, and now that Fuente’s crew has another year of experience and confidence oozing from head to toe, the Tigers are starting to put together four full quarters of good football.

“I want people to be excited about the progress that we are making, and I think they should be,” Fuente said. “I want them a week from Saturday to come out and play an active role in us trying to beat Middle Tennessee. I’m all for the reaction in a positive manner towards our program. And I’m glad that they are recognizing it. The challenge for us is to continue that, which is a big challenge.”

If Memphis can return from its bye week and jump on top of deceptively good Middle Tennessee team early and win convincingly, then I like its chances to give Ole Miss a challenge on September 27 before diving into AAC play and ultimately serving the role as one of the favorites to win the conference.