The American Frontier: Memphis

Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

Wrapping up our series on conference opponents for this season with the Memphis Tigers.

Memphis does many things well.

Music.

Barbeque.

Watching its best high school football recruits go to Ole Miss.

But, indisputably, the largest city on the Mississippi River does not do college football. To highlight this fact, here are a couple of others:

The Memphis Tigers have averaged an astonishing 19.22 points per game over the last four years.

They’ve also won a total of nine games.

I repeat, nine.

Comparatively, these figures make UConn look like a recent Oregon team— fueled by Nitro. The Huskies have been horrid on the offensive side of the ball, but their recent poor numbers came against steeper competition. Meanwhile, Memphis enters the AAC via (the famed Pop Warner division) Conference USA where up until 2012, they had won just two conference games over the previous three years.

How they’ve fared

Last season, the Tigers dropped their opener at home to FCS school Tennessee-Martin. Next, they lost six of seven. With three games to go, things looked ever more the same, no matter how much they had changed on the surface under first-year coach Justin Fuente. Then, Memphis flipped its fortunes by knocking off Tulane, UAB and Southern Miss consecutively to finish an even .500 in conference play and 4-8 overall.

Over that stretch, the Tigers boasted not only one of the leagues’ best defenses (no. 1 in conference play), but an offense that lit up scoreboards (over 40 ppg). These figures were certainly helped by the fact that Tulane and co. combined for just five victories in 2012, but nonetheless, tangible progress was finally made in the River City. Now it’s time to see if Memphis can carry that over to the AAC in 2013.

How they look

One of college football’s worst programs in recent years won’t be escaping from the bottom of the barrel this season. In fact record-wise, the team will appear worse, though the Tigers should actually be better than a year ago. Since his hiring, Fuente has done a nice job of bringing in new talent from the high school and junior college ranks to rejuvenate his squad. Most notably, former Alabama transfer and junior wide receiver Keiwone Malone came on board last year, and now returns as the team’s no. 1 option in the passing game. JUCO transfers Joe Craig and Adrian Henderson have arrived to aid him, as the trio will catch passes from senior quarterback Jacob Karam.

But, don’t be fooled. This is a running football team. Last year, despite their overall poor performance, Memphis was actually average nationally in rush offense. The production in the backfield came from current seniors Jai Stieb and Brandon Hayes, who combined for over 1,000 yards and now will resume their running duties. Up front, the offensive line brings back five players with starting experience, but loses starting left tackle Jordan Devey, who is with the Baltimore Ravens.

Bottom line: If the team is going to win games, it will be by grinding out yards and controlling the clock.

Defensively, things are strong up front and unspeakably horrific in the secondary. Memphis returns its top seven defensive lineman and three of its four best linebackers. The names to remember are pass rusher Martin Ifedi and linebackers Tank Jakes and Anthony Brown. Ifedi racked up 7.5 sacks in 2012, while Jakes led his position in tackles for loss with 8.5. Brown is a senior leader who finished with 78 tackles. The secondary lost 2 starters from a year ago and allowed 25 passing touchdowns.

How they match up

Given their strength up front defensively, this is a team that potentially could’ve provided some problems for UConn the last two seasons. However, now that the Huskies are opening up offensively and have better talent across the board, UConn should outmatch the Tigers in December.

What’s going to happen

Simply put, this is a game UConn has no business losing, if they’re going to be the team they want to be. Look at Memphis like you do Buffalo; it a lesser team with a decent running game and formidable front seven. They’re going to try hard, push you, but your talent is greater. The key will be a fast start to put the Tigers away early and force them to throw the football.

Final season prediction: 3-9 (1-7)

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