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2021 Memphis Tigers Football Season Preview

Memphis seeks to sustain its winning ways amidst an offseason defined by turnover.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Navy Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

We are currently living in the midst of the greatest stretch of Memphis Tigers football since the 1960s. After a disappointing stint in the C-USA from 1996 to 2012, new potential was unleashed in this program when joining the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Save for their first season in the conference, the Tigers have not finished with a losing record since joining the AAC.

In the College Football Playoff era, Memphis owns a .714 winning percentage. The next closest AAC team is UCF at .644. The Tigers hold one conference title, three AAC Championship Game appearances, a New Year’s Six bowl appearance, two bowl victories, and three AP Top 25 finishes to their name in the past seven seasons.

The program hasn’t enjoyed stability during this run of success, however. Ryan Silverfield is the third head coach the Tigers have employed over the timespan. Memphis is used to massive personnel turnover, but despite retaining Silverfield and both coordinators this offseason, the Tigers’ resiliency will be challenged. Can the winning culture crafted at Memphis seven years ago sustain amidst an offseason filled with change?


2020 in review

It was hard to get a good grasp of Memphis’ identity in 2020. Coming off an AAC title and New Year’s Six bowl qualification, expectations were lofty. The Tigers weren’t extraordinary and they weren’t terrible, but the 8-3 record felt like an achievement for a team which endured cardiac finish, week after week last year.

The points per game output descended from 40.4 (8th in FBS) to 31.0 (44th in FBS) from the final year of the Mike Norvell era to Silverfield’s first season, while the defense produced similar numbers. One of the more shocking results last year was that Memphis found itself entrenched in a 10-7 slugfest against Navy, instead of its traditional high-flying shootout. But the Tigers found themselves victorious in one of those as well, eking past UCF in a 50-49 result which featured 1,501 yards of total offense.

Memphis seemed to mirror its opponent in skill level each week, whether it was South Florida or SMU or UCF. Almost all finishes were down to the wire, and the Tigers recorded five finishes within three points or fewer in AAC play — finishing 4-1 in such contests.

The Tigers fortunately drew an overmatched opponent in Florida Atlantic in the Montgomery Bowl, allowing the team to snap a 5-game losing streak in bowl season while finishing 2020 on a high note.


Who’s gone?

The most noticeable loss on Memphis’ roster is at the quarterback position. Brady White was a collegiate quarterback for so long that he was pursuing his doctorate degree while leading Memphis to an 8-3 record in 2020. The 2019 All-AAC quarterback developed into a star quarterback and the face of the program during his stint in Memphis.

NCAA Football: Montgomery Bowl-Memphis vs Florida Atlantic
Brady White started at quarterback for Memphis from 2018-20, ranking first in program passing yards and TDs.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Two of White’s preferred targets, Damonte Coxie and Tahj Washington, also moved on from the program. Coxie opted out in the middle of the season last fall and is chasing an NFL opportunity. Washington fled to the West Coast to join Kedon Slovis’ loaded receiving corps at USC.

While the receiver depth took a massive hit, Memphis also lost several notable faces in the trenches. Obinna Eze, the starting left tackle in Memphis’ last 20 games, transferred to TCU in January. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Joseph Dorceus committed a rare intra-conference transfer by joining Tulane. Also, nose tackle O’Bryan Goodson declared for the NFL Draft after a season-ending injury in November shortened his senior campaign — taking out two starters in the Tigers’ 3-man front.

The Tigers’ No. 1 cornerback T.J. Carter also tested the waters of the transfer portal and he will join his former teammate Eze at TCU. Memphis must replace the former Freshman All-American’s production which includes 187 tackles, six interceptions, and 33 pass breakups during his tenure as a Tiger.

Two opt-outs for the 2020 season, Kenneth Gainwell and Tim Hart, will not return. Gainwell was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the NFL Draft and Hart transferred to the FCS level in January. A plethora of the aforementioned names were largely responsible for lifting this program to the 2019 AAC championship and Cotton Bowl appearance, forcing a new layer of leadership to take control of the locker room.


Who’s back?

Offense

Less than two years ago, Calvin Austin III was a walk-on wide receiver hoping to expand his playing time. Since, he’s earned a scholarship and become the star and leader of the team. The offensive phenom racked up 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games last year — unquestionably securing First Team All-AAC honors. The 5’9” wideout has a knack for getting open downfield and his speed propelled him to six 100-yard games last season, including three performances of 150+ yards.

NCAA Football: Stephen F. Austin at Memphis
Calvin Austin recorded five straight games of 100 receiving yards in the middle of the 2020 season.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

While the main faces in the wide receiver room with Austin change, the Tigers return one of their most vital receivers in tight end Sean Dykes. The red zone threat first stepped on campus in 2016, but he suddenly blossomed into one of college football’s top receiving tight ends in 2020. Dykes attained 581 receiving yards and handled seven touchdown passes, finishing with two games of at least 130+ yards and multiple touchdowns. He presents an impressive catch radius and should remain Memphis’ go-to option for critical goal line plays.

Memphis also returns all four of its leading rushers from 2020. No running back quite established himself as the premier ball carrier, but Memphis has a solid history of superior running back play. The 1,000-yard rusher streak established by Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor, and Kenneth Gainwell was finally discontinued in 2020. In order to inject life back into the running game, the Tigers will turn to Rodrigues Clark (136 carries, 561 yards) or Kylan Watkins (81 carries, 433 yards) to lead the unit, but don’t rule out Asa Martin. The Auburn transfer finished the season strong with a 96-yard outing in the Montgomery Bowl win over Florida Atlantic and serves as a potential challenger for the No. 1 spot.

The offensive line only returns two primary starters from 2020, but one of them is among the elite in the conference. Dylan Parham moved from left guard to right tackle last season and the position change worked well — now he’s a member of the Outland Trophy preseason watchlist. Isaac Ellis complements Parham at left guard as the only other lineman who started the majority of contests last fall.

Defense

The best news for Memphis’ defense is that the main characters in the pass rush return to invade backfields. Morris Joseph spearheaded the rush last season with team-highs in sacks (8.0) and tackles for loss (11.5). Wardalis Duckworth ranked second in sacks with 4.0 and enjoyed a breakthrough season, earning three starts across 11 appearances. With two key starters departed from the defensive line, Duckworth has an opportunity to build on the impressive numbers he recorded last year as a reserve.

Although the losses of Dorceus, Goodson, and Carter will certainly affect the defense, Memphis still returns its eight leading tacklers from 2020 — many of which operate at the linebacker and safety positions. J.J. Russell and Thomas Pickens are the main faces to watch in the linebacker group, as both were productive pieces on the 2019 Cotton Bowl team.

The safety group is loaded with experience and features the one of the best defenders in the AAC. Quindell Johnson rightfully locked up all-conference honors after amassing a team-high 81 tackles, picking off three passes, and forcing two fumbles in a dominant 2020. Rodney Owens, a breakout player landing third on the Tigers in tackles, and Sanchez Blake Jr., who produced 69 tackles and two interceptions in 2019, round out the loaded safety group.

NCAA Football: Houston at Memphis
Quindell Johnson collected 81 tackles and three interceptions on route to a Second Team All-AAC selection.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching

But one major benefit is continuity in the coaching staff. Ryan Silverfield is now in his second full season at the helm after taking over for Mike Norvell prior to the 2019 Cotton Bowl. And even rarer than keeping a head coach, Memphis retained both coordinators — OC Kevin Johns and DC Mike MacIntyre. Johns and MacIntyre are the third different offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, respectively, for Memphis since 2017, so running it back with both allows Memphis to fly through spring ball and fall camp without as much of a learning curve.


Who’s new?

Memphis has operated a revolving door of strong quarterback play since joining the AAC. From first round NFL Draft pick Paxton Lynch to stat-sheet stuffer Riley Ferguson to program leader Brady White, Memphis hasn’t left many question marks at the QB position in about a decade.

The Tigers enjoyed victories in the transfer market when landing Ferguson and White, and they’re attempting to recapture that magic with Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell. The 6’6” quarterback started seven games as a Wildcat and displayed a good track record of accuracy at the program. Gunnell completed 66.5 percent of his passes and manufactured a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-to-3. He’s the most experienced quarterback on the roster and is expected to serve as White’s successor after valuable experience in the Pac-12.

Gunnell will work behind an offensive line with only have two primary starters returning, but the unit certainly doesn’t lack experience. The Tigers landed transfers Jakari Robinson (Cincinnati) and Austin Myers (TCU) and those newcomers are expected to man the center and left tackle positions, respectively, after serving as starters at their former universities. To bolster the depth, Memphis also obtained Devontae Dobbs from the portal, a Michigan State offensive tackle with one career start.

The special teams unit received quite the overhaul. Longtime kicker Riley Patterson is no longer on the roster, and freshman Noah Grant rolls in from Navy to fulfill that vacancy. Former punter Adam Williams declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season, allowing Tennessee transfer Joe Doyle to take over. While Grant has yet to kick at the collegiate level, Doyle presents previous experience collegiate experience and was recognized as a Freshman All-American punter in 2018.


Schedule breakdown

Memphis Tigers 2021 Football Schedule

Week Date Opponent Last Meeting
Week Date Opponent Last Meeting
1 Sat, Sept. 4 vs. Nicholls (FCS) N/A
2 Sat, Sept. 11 @ Arkansas State W, 37-24 (2020)
3 Sat, Sept. 18 vs. Mississippi State L, 59-14 (2011)
4 Sat, Sept. 25 vs. UTSA N/A
5 Sat, Oct. 2 @ Temple W, 41-29 (2020)
6 Sat, Oct. 9 @ Tulsa W, 42-41 (2019)
7 Thu, Oct. 14 vs. Navy W, 10-7 (2020)
8 Fri, Oct. 22 @ UCF W, 50-49 (2020)
9 Sat, Oct. 30 BYE N/A
10 Sat, Nov. 6 vs. SMU L, 30-27 (2020)
11 Sat, Nov. 13 vs. East Carolina W, 59-41 (2018)
12 Fri, Nov. 19 @ Houston W, 30-27 (2020)
13 Sat, Nov. 27 vs. Tulane L, 35-21 (2020)
14 Sat, Dec. 4 AAC Championship Game N/A

Memphis is granted with a rather manageable non-conference schedule. The Tigers open with a trial run against an FCS program before traveling to Jonesboro, AR for their lone non-conference game on the road. There, they’ll face an Arkansas State team they handled on primetime television in the 2020 season opener.

Memphis closes out the non-conference slate with hosting duties against Mississippi State and UTSA. The Tigers usually battle Ole Miss in non-conference play, but this year that matchup belongs to the other team in the Egg Bowl rivalry. Mike Leach will bring his air raid offense into the Liberty Bowl as Mississippi State and Memphis battle for the first time in 10 years. Then, the Tigers remain in their home base for their first-ever meeting with UTSA, a C-USA contender on the rise.

Memphis opens conference play with back-to-back road trips at Tulsa and Tulane. The Tigers must place more emphasis on road games as they finished 1-3 in such outings in 2020, while posting a perfect 6-0 record at the Liberty Bowl. The remaining AAC road trips will materialize at UCF and Houston — two teams Memphis snuck past in the final two minutes of last year’s meetings.

At home, demons must be exorcised against SMU and Tulane — two teams that handed losses to Memphis in 2020. The Tigers also greet Navy and East Carolina at the Liberty Bowl, the venue in which they hope to extend their current 15-game win streak.

As Memphis enters a phase of retooling and uncertainty, the Tigers have their sights set on on an eighth-consecutive winning season and eight-consecutive bowl appearance. The journey to attaining that mark, and possibly more, commences Sept. 4.