July is almost over and that means the college football season is right around the corner. In the next few weeks, fall camp will be underway across the country, and each team has its own set of priorities and storylines heading into the 2013 season.
In the furthest southwest corner of Tennessee, the Memphis Tigers are riding a wave of momentum coming into 2013 on a three-game winning streak. The atmosphere to begin seems to be almost the complete opposite from the last few years, and much of the credit goes to head coach Justin Fuente, who in a short time has brought life and hope to a once tattered and beaten Tigers program.
It didn’t start great, as the Tigers lost their opener to UT-Martin in a game that featured a weather delay lasting near three hours. This year, Memphis looks to get off on the right foot with the Duke Blue Devils coming to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Sept. 7. In 2012, Memphis traveled to Duke and left with a 38-14 defeat. The Tigers played a competitive game up until the fourth quarter when Duke pulled away due to Memphis’ inability to move the ball on offense.
But, fans should have different expectations for this year’s meeting.
When Memphis went to Duke, they did so still in a learning process with a whole new system and coaches. The offensive play calling was very conservative for the first half of the season, as now senior quarterback Jacob Karam was in his first year as a starter, and it was apparent against the Blue Devils.
The Tigers put up just 152 yards of total offense, running 34 less plays than Duke. Karam did not have a terrible game, but Fuente was still weary in game four of tossing the ball a lot. Karam attempted just 22 passes, completing 13 for 81 yards with no scores and no interceptions. Those numbers should prove to be a distant memory now that Karam has a year of starting down and had developed his game and relationships with his receivers.
Another reason the Tigers could not get a good passing attack going was they failed to establish any sort of rhythm on the ground. Memphis did not have a go-to running back for much of the 2012 season and it was exposed. They managed only 71 yards and averaged an abysmal 2.5 yards per carry at Duke, another stat that should see a considerable leap with the emergence of senior Brandon Hayes at the conclusion of last year.
Hayes barely saw any action early on but worked his way into the rotation and eventually got the starting nod. He gave the coaches reassurance after being the named the starter against the UAB Blazers by running for 127 yards and three touchdowns in a 46-9 route. He followed that up with 115 yards and two scores in the season finale against Southern Miss, and in both games he averaged over six yards a pop. Hayes is the guy this year and it should help the Tigers tremendously not having questions as to who will carry the load.
Memphis put up 14 points on Duke in the first half then did not score the rest of the way. Do not expect that to happen this time around. Fuente is not going to be conservative and will have a much more wide-open playbook. The crowd should also be a factor, as many fans are counting down the days until kickoff.
You can also expect the Tigers to not allow 500 yards again. The defense also took time to develop cohesion, but once all the players developed chemistry, Memphis ended the year leading C-USA in total defense in league games. The turnaround was remarkable for a unit that ranked almost dead last in the NCAA a year earlier.
Duke is going through a quarterback change, giving one of the best defensive lines in the AAC a chance to create some chaos. It’s never easy for a player to play his first game as the head signal caller on the road, and Anthony Boone will face a hostile environment.
All in all, the expectations for the Tigers against Duke in 2013 are much higher. An improved and more experienced offense will provide for many more scoring opportunities, with the same going for the defense. A 24-point loss does not seem to be in the equation. Memphis is a hungry team with a program on the rise. Expect the Tigers to make this a great game and quite possibly win.