MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Justin Fuente has his hands full enough in his second season of rebuilding at Memphis that he's focused only on his Tigers, even in their first year as members of the American Athletic Conference.
"We know that we are obviously faced with an incredible challenge to build a football program while simultaneously taking a step up in competition," Fuente said. "But we're going into this with our eyes wide open and with full understanding of what it's going to take to get the job done. And we're looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead."
Memphis has been trying to move to a better conference for years and finally got into a league that automatically qualifies for the Bowl Championship Series, even if for only one year.
But the Tigers still are trying to dig out from the mess left from Larry Porter's tenure when Memphis went a combined 3-21. Fuente led the Tigers to a 4-8 record that was Memphis' best since 2008. The Tigers won their final three games, tying Cincinnati for the longest winning streak of any team in the AAC.
Little is expected this season even with eight starters back on both offense and defense. Jacob Karam is coming off a season where he set the school record completing 64.2 percent of his passes, and he was intercepted only three times while throwing 14 touchdowns. He is facing competition from redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch.
"We know where we're at and where we're going to go and what we're going to do," Fuente said. "So I don't take other people's opinions and consider that as a step backward."
Memphis does have eight starters back on a defense that improved greatly in Fuente's first season. The Tigers went from being ranked 117th nationally and giving up 491 yards in 2011 to 50th last season, giving up 383.58 yards. They also went from 97th against the run in Porter's final season to 32nd under Fuente, allowing 138 yards rushing per game.
Being in the AAC means a tougher schedule too. The Tigers open the season hosting Duke on Sept. 7 with visits from Central Florida and Cincinnati. They also go to South Florida, Louisville and Connecticut.
Here are five things to watch during Memphis' upcoming season:
1. QUARTERBACK BATTLE: Karam impressed with his play as he threw for 1,895 yards and his school records with his passing accuracy. He has attracted attention for his work at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital too. That doesn't mean the senior who transferred from Texas Tech has the starting job again this season with Fuente trying to stoke competition across the roster. Lynch is big at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds and has a very strong arm.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE: Memphis has five offensive linemen who have started for the Tigers. Senior Chris Schuetz and junior Al Bond started each game last season with Bond on the field for every offensive snap. Senior Antonio Foster started 11 games, while Micah Simmons started three of the 12 games he played.
3. DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT: Repeating the success Memphis had improving defensively will be tough considering the Tigers jumped 67 spots in total defense from 2011. The Tigers have eight starters back with plenty of experience on the defensive line where Johnnie Farms, Terry Redden and Corey Jones all got playing time. So is Martin Ifedi, who had a team-high 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
4. HOME SWEET HOME?: Tigers' fans have been excited about moving to the AAC and back into the same league as Louisville, a conference foe since both schools were in the Metro Conference. But Louisville's in the AAC only this season before moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Tigers visit Louisville on Nov. 23. That could have been Memphis' best draw to the Liberty Bowl this season as Fuente also tries to rebuild the fan base too.
5. SCHEDULE FRIENDLY: The Tigers play six of their first eight games in the cozy confines of the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, and their first road game is just a short trip to Middle Tennessee. Unfortunately, that means Memphis hits the road for three of the final four games, so a good start early will be a must.
Predicted finish in AAC: Ninth
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/