The University of Memphis football team reports to training camp this week, its first gathering as a member of the new American Athletic Conference. Which has me wondering . . .
• Does momentum hibernate?
Four-game winning streaks happen in these parts slightly more often than mayoral turnover at city hall. Since Rip Scherer took over the Tiger program before the 1995 season — a span of 18 years — Memphis has won four consecutive games exactly twice, both during the DeAngelo Williams era (one streak bridged the 2003 and 2004 seasons). For only the second time since 1989, Memphis will start a season having won its last three the previous year. (The Tigers opened the 2006 campaign with a loss at Ole Miss on their way to a 2-10 season.)
Can the positive vibe of last year’s finish be carried over to a new season, a new team flush with first-year players? Junior cornerback Bobby McCain equivocates in his answer: “We want to start the season like we ended last year. But we have to forget [the winning streak] and start a new era. We’d like to carry someone off the field after a bowl game. It’s a new beginning in Memphis Tiger football.”
Coach Justin Fuente feels like the late success of 2012 can be a reminder of what’s to come, but there remains a steep climb for this program. Remember, they finished with a record of 4-8. “There are rewards out there,” he says, “if we prepare the right way. But none of those points [from last year] count. It’s a new season, against new teams.”
• Jacob Karam can melt hearts. Can he shred a secondary?
The senior quarterback started all 12 games a year ago and, after his heart-squeezing piano performance last month at St. Jude, is surely the easiest Tiger to cheer. He tossed 14 touchdown passes last season and only three interceptions in 274 attempts. So he’ll be the face of the Memphis offense, right?
Not so fast. Last month I asked Fuente if a quarterback competition is open for training camp and he said, “very open.” Redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch (6’6”, 225 lbs) brings physical tools to the position Karam can’t match. According to senior center Antonio Foster, “[Lynch] is fast; has those long strides. And he’s an accurate thrower.” Furthermore, Fuente says junior Eric Mathews — third on the current depth chart — “throws the ball better than anyone gives him credit for.”
It’s been six years since a Tiger quarterback has held the position for two seasons (Martin Hankins in 2006 and ’07). Whether or not Karam can retain the signal-calling duties will be a matter strictly of his performance on the field. Needless to say, the senior is fairly bursting with those fabled “intangibles.” Just ask anyone at St. Jude. Or Foster, for that matter. “Jacob is a leader,” says the man who snapped him the ball most of last season. “He never quits. It’s what we needed last year. His composure is always up.”
• What do the experts know?
In the AAC media poll released last week, the Tigers received 47 voter points, dead last among the league’s ten teams. (Louisville is the prohibitive favorite to win the conference title. The Cardinals received 28 of 30 first-place votes, the other two going to Cincinnati.) Considering none of the four teams Memphis beat last season appear on this year’s schedule, why would voters think any better of the Tigers’ chances this fall?
But here’s the rub. Beyond a national champion from the SEC, nothing in college football is certain before Labor Day. I’m guessing none of those voters has seen Mose Frazier or Joe Craig in action, a pair of fleet-footed first-year receivers who may stretch opposing defenses in ways last year’s Tiger team could not. And I know the voters haven’t considered the seven-man battle royal getting ready to take place for playing time at tailback. Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib are back, but they’ll be competing with four freshmen and a sophomore for carries on Saturday. Says Fuente, “Last year it was just getting guys [on the field] who would work hard and have a good attitude. Now, it’s legitimate competition, and not just to play, but to play well.”
The Tigers open their season September 7th at the Liberty Bowl against Duke.