Two years after losing Justin Fuente to Virginia Tech and quarterback Paxton Lynch to the NFL, Memphis has reasserted itself as a power in the AAC.
Everyone knows about the best Power Five conference teams. The teams of the major conferences dominate our television screens every Saturday and the media coverage the rest of the week. But there are plenty of teams from the Group of Five conferences to pay attention to as well.
The American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, and the Sun Belt all sport a handful of teams worthy of notice, and here at SQ, we aim to highlight those teams with our Underdog U segment.
This week we will focus on the No. 23 Memphis Tigers (7-1 overall, 4-1 AAC), who currently lead the AAC West division and look poised to head to the conference title game.
Why You Don’t Know Them
Formerly the Big East, the American Athletic Conference is actually one of the more popular Group of Five conferences. The AAC boasts commonly known college football teams such as Navy, Houston, and SMU. However, as the Power Five conferences expanded during recent seasons and absorbed some of the best teams from the Group of Five — for example, Louisville leaving the American for the ACC and TCU moving from the Mountain West to the Big 12 — the American, like its fellows in the rest of the Group of Five, has waned in popularity.
Memphis joined the American in 2013 after spending its previous 18 seasons as a member of Conference USA. In those four seasons since coming to the American, Memphis has risen from a basement dweller to a consistent contender atop the conference. The Tigers tied for the conference championship in 2014, and finished three or more games above .500 each of the next two seasons.
Memphis gained a little bit of publicity in 2015 when head coach Justin Fuente became one of the more sought-after coaching prospects and quarterback Paxton Lynch was projected as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fuente eventually replaced the legendary Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, and Lynch went on to be drafted 26th overall by the Denver Broncos.
After losing both its head coach and its quarterback, Memphis was expected to need some time to rebuild, but under new head coach Mike Norvell and quarterback Riley Ferguson, the Tigers finished 8-5 last season, and are currently 7-1 this year. Memphis is first in the West division and could potentially challenge UCF in the conference title game, so long as it takes care of business in its final three games of the year.
Why You Should Know Them
What’s the best way to forget about the fact that your team recently lost arguably the best quarterback in the program’s history? Replace him with a quarterback who might be even better. Lynch threw for 59 touchdowns and 8,863 yards in his career at Memphis during the course of his three seasons as the starter. Ferguson is going to break his touchdown mark in just two seasons and could come close to matching his yardage total.
Through 21 career starts, Ferguson has thrown for 6,281 yards and 55 touchdowns. Three times in his career he has thrown six or more touchdowns in a game, and six times he has thrown for more than 350 yards in a game.
Ferguson has helped to lead Memphis to one of the best offenses in the country. Memphis ranks eighth in scoring offense, 11th in total offense, 21st in points per trip, has a passing game that ranks 16th in success rate, and a running game that ranks sixth in explosiveness (IsoPPP).
Ferguson’s favorite target is redshirt senior wide receiver Anthony Miller, who has hauled in 10 touchdowns already this season, second-most in the FBS. Miller isn’t particularly physically imposing — he is listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds — but he has above-average speed, phenomenal hands, and an incredible ability to control his body in the air. Those skills allow him to evade defenders and make him just as much a threat in the red zone as he is in the open field.
The Tigers have two running backs, sophomores Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr., that split carries, and each brings a different dynamic to the offense.
Henderson is the shifty speedster. He has totaled 653 yards and four touchdowns on the ground so far this season on 8.1 yards per carry. Henderson also has two 80-plus yard carries on the year. Taylor Jr. is the bruiser. Listed at 6-foot-3, 223 pounds of solid muscle, Taylor Jr. has scored seven rushing touchdowns on the year and logged 396 yards on 4.7 yards per carry. The pair complement each other well, and help to open up passing lanes for Ferguson by forcing opposing defenses to stay honest.
Ferguson and the Memphis offense have already led the Tigers to two wins over ranked opponents, future professional quarterback Josh Rosen and his then-No. 25 UCLA Bruins, and then-No. 25 Navy.
Admittedly, Memphis’s defense is a bit problematic. The Tigers rank 104th in scoring defense, allowing a dismal 33.4 points per game. But aside from one loss against a very strong UCF team that was just ranked the No. 18 team in the country by the first College Football Playoff rankings, Memphis has been able to overcome that deficiency with its superb offensive play.
Memphis is a dangerous team thanks to its offense. The Tigers can beat you through the air or on the ground, and not many defenses have been able to slow them down at all this year. Only once has Memphis failed to crack 30 points scored, and five times it scored 40 or more points. Don’t expect that to stop the rest of the way. This team puts on a show week in and week out, and it is worthy of your attention.
The Road Ahead
The Tigers have just three games remaining on their regular season schedule: at Tulsa (2-7), vs. SMU (6-2), and vs. ECU (2-6). The Tulsa and ECU games should be walk-overs, but the matchup against SMU is interesting because it should decide the West division. Both teams currently only have one loss in conference play, and both teams have relied on strong offenses to overcome shaky defenses. Memphis benefits from playing the game at home, but either way it should be an exciting game to watch.
If Memphis wins out and reaches the American championship game, it will likely earn a rematch against UCF, who beat the Tigers 40-13 back in September. A win there, and Memphis very well could be the Group of Five’s representative in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
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