• For every football coach who takes over the rebuilding of a program, there must come a night when he lowers his head to a pillow and wonders, “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” That may well have been last Saturday night (or more likely, early Sunday morning) for Justin Fuente. Playing a beatable Middle Tennessee team, the Tigers turned the ball over four times, committed seven penalties, and saw the Blue Raiders score 20 unanswered points in the second quarter to take control of the contest. When the U of M managed to regain some momentum near the end of the first half — thanks to a Marcus Rucker touchdown — they surrendered it on the first play after halftime when Bobby McCain coughed up the opening kickoff.
Fuente became the first coach to open his Memphis career 0-3 since Chuck Stobart in 1989. (Stobart lost his first four games before beating Vanderbilt during a 2-9 season.) Longtime Tiger loyalists will shudder at the memory of 1986, when Charlie Bailey took over for Rey Dempsey and lost the first seven games of the season. (The Tigers’ only win that season came against . . . wait for it . . . Vanderbilt.) Bailey, of course, was on the sideline in 1987 when Memphis upset Alabama. And Stobart had what amounts to a glory run for this program with three straight 6-5 seasons. Better days will come for Justin Fuente. After Saturday’s loss, he must be wondering when.
• During the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game, my buddy Leroy Watson asked me a provocative question in the press box: “This team needs size, speed, and depth. If you had to pick just one, which would it be?”
How can you choose between three elements of the game so broad and so necessary for success? It’s a confounding riddle the Tiger coaching staff faces, and one that can’t be answered within the confines of a 12-game season. (I went with speed.) Memphis defenders are routinely outrun once an opponent clears the line of scrimmage. On short yardage plays, the push seems to go against the Tigers. (The Tiger defense has yet to record a quarterback sack.) And with the roster so thin (just over 70 scholarship players, only 14 seniors), the options at one position or another are limited. Fuente’s challenge — as he acknowledged regularly after taking the job — is making the most of the talent he has. It’s a formidable challenge.
• Entering the season, if you divided the Tigers’ schedule into three-game quarters and ranked them (from strongest quarter to weakest), it would have looked like this:
1) UCF/at SMU/at Marshall (3rd quarter, strongest)
2) at Duke/Rice/at East Carolina (2nd quarter)
3) Tulane/at UAB/Southern Miss (4th quarter)
4) UT-Martin/at Arkansas State/Middle Tennessee (1st quarter, weakest)
So the U of M finishes its weakest quarter of the season with nothing to show in the win column. And two of the next three games on the road. Memphis-Duke in basketball would mean national television. On the gridiron, it’s a game between two programs with something to prove. Duke enters with two wins (but over FIU and North Carolina Central) and a thorough whipping at the hands of Stanford. For the Tigers, a win in Durham would be . . . enormous. The last time the Tigers beat a team from a BCS league was the 2004 opener over Ole Miss. To upset the Blue Devils on the road? It would be the equivalent of silencing the Cameron Crazies in March.