The wait is finally over. This week, the college football fanatics of the world will come out of their eight month hibernation to watch the season kickoff, and programs now switch focus from fall camp to their season openers.
Down in Bluff City, the Memphis Tigers begin preparation for their home opener on Sept. 7 against the Duke Blue Devils. They were a pleasant surprise in head coach Justin Fuente’s first year, winning four games, the most since 2008, and finishing the season on a three-game winning streak.
The attitude and culture surrounding the team has changed drastically since Fuente arrived. Entering year two, Fuente’s Tigers make the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, and with it comes a much tougher schedule. Despite that, Memphis has a chance to return to the postseason for the first time in half a decade.
The Tigers will have two weeks to prepare for Duke, which should work to their advantage. This game could be the x-factor as to whether Memphis returns to a bowl game, or is left sitting at home on the couch watching. It very well could come down to how freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch performs in his first collegiate start. The Liberty Bowl should be packed, but the Blue Devils pull this one out in the fourth quarter.
Memphis follows the loss with games against two very familiar opponents in the MTSU Blue Raiders and Arkansas State Red Wolves. The Tigers have their first road game at MTSU on Sept. 14, with the Red Wolves at home the week after. Both teams beat Memphis in 2012, but the Tigers’ defense proves to be too much for either to score enough points to hang with a much improved offense.
Standing at 2-1, they enter the AAC slate at home against the Central Florida Knights. Memphis will be competitive, but they simply do not have the personnel to match the Knights at this point. Quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson make a formidable backfield, one the Tigers will have trouble stopping. The offense will still be jelling, and won’t be able to score enough to keep up dropping them to 2-2 and 0-1 in conference play.
At Houston on Oct. 12, Memphis looses their second conference game to fall to 2-3 and 0-2 in the AAC. The Cougars have aruably the best offense in the league. Quarterback David Piland will have a big day to receiver Deontay Greenberry, as the Tigers secondary struggles to contain the pass-happy Cougars. Though Memphis puts up some points against an average Houston defense, once again, it is not enough to get the victory.
Fuente and his team close out October with two games at home against the SMU Mustangs (Oct. 19) and the Cincinnati Bearcats (Oct. 30). With five games under their belt, the Tigers get their first AAC win against SMU. A solid defensive line takes advantage of an inexperienced Mustangs o-line, not allowing SMU and quarterback Garrett Gilbert to get going, while Lynch begins to hit his stride. However, they lose the next week to a Bearcats team that is too talented on both sides of the ball for the Tigers in their first year, moving them to 3-4 and 1-3 in the AAC.
They open November with a revenge game at home against the UT-Martin Skyhawks. After losing to them in the season opener in 2012, Memphis comes out of the gate sprinting, and pummels the Skyhawks on both sides of the ball en route to an easy victory. They can’t get a winning streak going, however, as they travel to the South Florida Bulls. They keep the game close, but fall in the fourth to move to 4-5 and 1-4 in league games.
The next game on Nov. 23 is a sure loss. The Louisville Cardinals are by far the best team in the AAC, and on the road, the Tigers just don’t have the firepower to get the upset. It will be important, however, because this game will be a gauge as to how far the program has come under Fuente.
Memhis splits the final two games, picking up their second AAC win against the Temple Owls at home, then losing the season finale at the Connecticut Huskies, finishing the year 5-7 and 2-6 in the conference. Overall, it is a successful 2013 campaign, but Memphis is still a year away from going bowling. The Tigers are on the rise, and have a chance at more than five wins, but for now, they still have work to do before that happens.