In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiased is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
2014 Record: 10-3 (7-1 in AAC)
Head Coach: Justin Fuente (.459)
Returning Starters: 13/24 (8 OFF/3 DEF/2 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 89th
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 12 @ Kansas
- Sept. 19 @ Bowling Green
- Sept. 24 v. Cincinnati
- Oct. 17 v. Ole Miss
- Nov. 14 @ Houston
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE TIGERS
Last year Memphis was a force in the AAC, tying for the league championship in its first season after relocating from Conference USA. You might remember the Tigers going to the Rose Bowl and putting a scare into UCLA. You might remember how they rebounded from a 3-3 start to win seven straight. But if you remember anything about Memphis from 2014, you probably remember this melee that capped the ending of the Miami Beach Bowl victory over BYU:
Even with the scuffle to end the season, Memphis still hit 10 wins for the first time since 1938. Hell, they hit a win total that was compiled over the past four seasons combined. It was also the school’s first conference championship in over four decades. All seasons points to this being an aberration, yet Justin Fuente has established a program that has built itself up organically and reaped the benefits of that steady growth last year. Despite the sudden leap in wins between 2013 and 2014, the Tigers have built a roster that can sustain excellence.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE TIGERS IN 2015
Memphis returns eight offensive starters from a unit that averaged more than five touchdowns and 425 yards per game, which put the Tigers among the 25 most productive offenses in college football last year. With quarterback Paxton Lynch, four of his top five receivers from last season, and four offensive line starters all returning to the team, Fuente’s crew should be able to match or even exceed last year’s production. The only place of concern is tailback, with Brandon Hayes graduating, though sophomore Jarvis Cooper and junior Doroland Dorceus should be able to pick up the slack between them with more regular carries.
Also working in the team’s favor is a schedule that contains plenty of statement opportunities both within and outside the conference. The Tigers will play at Kansas, which provides one of the easiest opportunities in the country to claim a victory over a Power Five school, and has to go to Bowling Green (which might be a harder out) the following weekend. Memphis will also host Ole Miss in the back half of the home-and-home series that began last year with a 24-3 Rebels victory, and the talent disparity will be less pronounced this time around. The strength of schedule will certainly stand up against other Group of Five champions when it comes time for the selection committee to assess each team’s case for the Access Bowl.
WHAT COULD COST THE TIGERS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
As has already been addressed with other AAC teams, the fact that so many candidates have a credible shot at the title makes it that much harder to declare any one team as a favorite. Whoever emerges from the league with the crown could conceivably have one or more conference defeats in addition to whatever happens out of conference, and the attrition that comes from parity could ultimately cause the AAC champ to be relegated to a position behind the other mid-major conference champions. With two Power Five schools and another out-of-conference Access Bowl hopeful on the schedule, Memphis must take care of business at least 11 times once the AAC championship game is over to have a chance.
What will make it tough is a defense that has to replace five starters and over half of the total tackles amassed in 2014. A unit that ranked 11th in points allowed and 27th in yardage conceded last year will likely taper off a bit and regress toward the mean, putting even more pressure on Lynch and the offense to perform above last year’s level. The defense also generated 31 turnovers, which will be tougher to replicate with so many new bodies cycling into regular playing time. If the replacements can’t get up to speed almost immediately, a season with so much promise could go up in flames rather quickly for the Tigers.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
Memphis will warm up into its 2015 season with a blowout of FCS Missouri State at the Liberty Bowl, getting fully up to speed before the trip to Lawrence the following week. The only real question is whether the Tigers will defeat Kansas by more points than their I-AA opponents from the previous week. Bowling Green will await the following week, and while the Falcons will prove the stiffest test yet of the season Memphis should remain undefeated. A Thursday night visit from Cincinnati will open conference play on the last week of September, and the Tigers should move to 4-0 and start its AAC campaign with a victory.
The opening weekend of October presents a trip to Tampa to face South Florida; the Bulls have challenged teams in the past, but this will not be one of those moments. At 5-0, Memphis will enjoy a bye weekend before hosting Ole Miss. The Rebels are likely going to have a fearsome defense, and the offense will challenge the Tigers D throughout the night. The two teams will trade punches, but the first half of the season will likely close with Memphis’ first loss of the year. They’ll beat up on Tulsa and Tulane in an attempt to get over the loss of the undefeated possibility, reaching November at 7-1 with a 4-0 record in AAC play.
Navy comes to Tennessee to face the Tigers, and the Midshipmen will be rudely welcomed to their first taste of conference play after decades of independence with a loss in Memphis. The trip to Houston will decide the conference title, and Memphis will gain revenge for the four-point defeat the Cougars inflicted last year at the Liberty Bowl. At 9-1, the Tigers will travel to Philadelphia for a battle with Temple in the penultimate game of the regular season, and it is there in the City of Brotherly Love that Justin Fuente will secure his second straight season with double digits in the win column. Returning home, a spot in the AAC championship game already secure, the Tigers will dominate SMU to enter the title game with momentum. In the rematch with Cincinnati, Memphis will win the conference title outright. The selection committee will have a tough choice to make, but the Tigers will probably have to settle for a berth in one of the conference’s affiliated bowls, where they will take out their frustrations to finish the year with the best win total in school history.
PREDICTED RECORD: 13-1 (8-0 in AAC)