After just one year as head coach, Justin Fuente took a Memphis Tigers team that had gone 5-31 in the three previous seasons to a 4-8 record and a three-game winning streak to end the season. The opening stretch of the 2012 season was rough, with the Tigers stumbling to 0-4 as the team worked to acclimated in games to all of the new changes.
Now in 2013, the first four games will be crucial for a Memphis team that aims to leave the NCAA football cellar and become a respectable program as it was in the mid 2000′s under Tommy West. The schedule will be much tougher this year, with road trips at the Louisville Cardinals, Connecticut Huskies and South Florida Bulls, as well as home games against the Duke Blue Devils and Cincinnati Bearcats. For the Tigers to have a chance to reach their first bowl game since an appearance in the St. Petersburg Bowl in 2008, a game Memphis was smashed in by South Florida, the team will have to better than the 0-4 start to last season.
The start of the 2013 campaign for the Tigers sets up favorably, as three of their first four games are at home in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis opens with Duke at home, a game they stayed in was competitive in last year on the road until unraveling in the second half and losing 38-14. Duke has a chance to secure their first winning season since 1994 after losing their bowl game last year and finishing 6-7. The Tigers follow that up with a road trip to face the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders and then two home games against the Arkansas State Red Wolves and Central Florida Knights.
The Blue Raiders beat Memphis 48-30 at the Liberty Bowl last year, thanks in large part to a barrage of turnovers. However, the Tigers should be able to handle them this year barring another collapse. In 2011, Arkansas State pounded Memphis to a pulp, 47-3, in Jonesboro, Ark. Nobody really expected Fuente’s squad to give the Red Wolves much trouble in 2012, but Memphis had the game in hand on the road until a missed field goal opened the door for a comeback and an eventual 33-28 defeat. This year’s game will be back in the Bluff City and a much-improved Memphis team at home should carry the advantage heading in as Arkansas State losses more than half of their starters on defense and team-leader and signal-caller Ryan Aplin.
Though all four games in the opening stretch will be equally important in shooting for a return to a bowl game, the two biggest early tests will be Duke and Central Florida. The Tigers have a chance to beat a Duke team that is going through a change under center as Anthony Boone takes over the reigns of the offense. The Blue Devils are going under significant changes to the offense with the departure of quarterback Sean Renfree, who threw and ran the option often. With the Tigers returning seven starters on both sides of the ball, they should have the edge in chemistry and continuity, but Duke has many playmakers and it would surprise no one if they got the win on the road.
Central Florida should prove to be an even stiffer test than Duke with one of the top quarterbacks in the AAC in Blake Bortles. Bortles returns for a Knights team that went 10-4 in 2012 and 7-1 in C-USA, losing to Tulsa in the championship but bouncing back with a 38-17 win over Ball State in the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl. The good news for Memphis is Central Florida losses the bulk of their starters on defense, a unit the Tigers managed to score 17 points on. The Knights will still be favored in this game, but if Memphis can get wins early on against Duke, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State and build some momentum, the offense lead by senior Jacob Karam could find some success on the ground and through the air.
Though Memphis could win the first four games if everything goes just right, it is very unlikely. However, Game 1 against Duke will be the tone setter. If the Tigers win game one, there is a good chance they enter game four versus the Knights 3-0. Even if they do lose to Duke though, Memphis has a great chance to come into game four 2-1. In any circumstance, much of the season will be riding on the opening stretch for a possible return to a bowl.