Head coach Mike Norvell exceeded expectations during his first year at Memphis, leading the Tigers to eight wins and their third straight bowl appearance.
While the Tigers started the 2016 season with a 5-1 start, they cooled down as the second half of the season approached. Their 3-3 record to end the regular season tasted even more sour with a 20-point massacre to Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl.
The Memphis offense is the engine that will drive the Tigers to victory. If the Tigers have any chance to win the American Athletic Conference Championship, however, their defense has to find a solution to prevent as many scores as last season.
Quarterback Riley Ferguson is back for his final year of college football after passing for 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns. Ferguson has most of last season’s core returning, as the Tigers return eight offensive starters for the 2017 campaign.
The former junior college quarterback fueled the Memphis offense to an average of 304.4 passing yards per game, ranking 14th in the nation. Ferguson’s no. 1 receiver, Anthony Miller, returns after setting the school record with 1,434 receiving yards last season. Miller will be joined by Phil Mayhue, who averaged 16.1 yards per catch heading into his senior season.
Senior Doroland Dorceus stands out from the running backs, leading the Tigers with 810 rushing yards. Dorceus will get some help from Patrick Taylor, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry, along with Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard.
Ferguson’s offensive line is stacked with returning starters and has added strength at left tackle in Harneet Gill, a former Missouri signee. With Gill’s move to left tackle, Trevon Tate is expected to move to the right side.
Memphis’ offense has clearly the backbone of the team, ranking 15th in the nation in scoring offense and 28th in total offense with an average of 463.7 yards per game.
While the offense did their job to put points on the scoreboard, the Tigers’ defense struggled from preventing their opponents to do the same in 2016. The Memphis defense held four opponents to single digits, the Tigers gave at least 40 points in six games, which resulted in all five of their losses.
One of the reasons for the defense ranking in the bottom half of the nation in a plethora of categories was due to the absence of linebacker Jackson Dillon. Dillon only played eight snaps in 2016 due to injury, but has a totaled his career tackles to 109.
Middle Linebacker Curtis Atkins filled a void in the middle of the season, becoming a force in the starting lineup. Genard Avery returns at the other linebacker position after leading the Tigers with 11 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Memphis’ defensive backfield is comprised of athletes who competed for some of the top programs in college football. Cornerbacks Tito Windham and Marcus Green, two former Oklahoma products, are expected to contribute immediately.
Windham got repetitions with the first-team during the spring while Green has size at 6 feet 2 inches to match tall, lengthy wideouts. Former Alabama product Jonathan Cook led the Tigers with 88 tackles last season at safety.
The defense will dictate whether the Tigers have a championship trophy in the case and end the season with a bowl win.
Aug. 31, Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 9, at UCF
Sept. 16, UCLA
Sept. 23, Southern Illinois
Sept. 30, at Georgia State
Oct. 6, at UCONN
Oct. 14, Navy
Oct. 19, at Houston
Oct. 27, Tulane
Nov. 3, at Tulsa
Nov. 18, SMU
Nov. 25, East Carolina
Memphis’ schedule is not as strong as it has been in the past, which means they should easily have a winning record. Having UCLA at home is an opportunity for the Tigers to get a potentially solid resume’-builder victory early on in the season, which could shine brighter if Memphis is unable to win the high-level conference games.
Playing Navy and Houston not even within a week within each other is just brutal. What was the American thinking when scheduling this?
Although the Tigers can’t prevent the way the schedule turned out in conference, getting one win during that stretch could be considered a success. The final three games of the season will be extremely crucial, especially if Memphis is vying for a spot in the AAC Championship game.
Playing in Tulsa will prove to be a tough atmosphere and SMU will certainly not be a cake walk. East Carolina could pose some problems in the final regular season game of the year, in which any loss would be detrimental to the standings and potentially affect what bowl game the Tigers could participate in.
Memphis’ schedule sets them up for success, but could turn into failure at the same time.