The University of Memphis football team just completed its sixth straight losing season (3-9). But was it a bad season? In simple terms, yes. Any losing season is a bad season, particularly the way this one ended. Let’s consider the campaign a little deeper, with a few points of consideration for a long offseason.
• First, the numbers (I’ll stick with per-game averages). The Tigers were outscored 24.6 points to 19.5 (compared with 30.2 to 24.4 in 2012). The Tigers gained an average of 311.5 yards and surrendered 370.7 (last year the respective figures were 318.3 and 383.6). The defense improved, if only marginally, while the offense regressed. Hard to measure overall progress from these stats. And there’s just no hiding what happened the last two weeks against Temple and Connecticut, bottom feeders in the American Athletic Conference. In giving up a combined 1,072 yards to the Owls and Huskies, the Memphis defense fell from a ranking of 16th in the country to 40th.
• Few positions in sports are measured by the performance of others like that of offensive linemen. If a running back is able to regularly break into the defensive backfield, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well. If a quarterback is able to camp in the pocket for four or five seconds, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well.
There were not a lot of lengthy runs from Tiger tailbacks this season, and quarterback Paxton Lynch did more running than he or his head coach planned last August. Chewing on these observations, the Tiger offensive linemen did not do their jobs all that well in 2013. Two of them being seniors (Antonio Foster and Chris Scheutz), the line will take new shape in 2014. It really has to. And holdovers like Taylor Fallin and Nykiren Wellington must improve or turn their duties over to others. Boiled right down, football is a simple game. The team that consistently gets a push at the line of scrimmage wins. That team was rarely the Memphis Tigers this fall.
• Is Paxton Lynch The Guy? The redshirt freshman threw a pretty ball when he was able to load up and fire downfield (all too rarely). And he was far more nimble a runner than most 6’7” signal-callers. He was durable, never missing a start and absorbing plenty of contact. I would have liked to see measurable improvement from Lynch over the 12-game season, and I’m not sure we did. He surpassed 200 yards in passing only twice all season (matching Jacob Karam’s total of a year ago). For the season, Lynch completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
As a redshirt freshman in 2001, Danny Wimprine completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,329 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. (The Tigers finished 5-6.) The next three seasons, Wimprine passed for more yardage — in each season — than any previous Memphis quarterback. That’s your bar, Paxton.
• The Tigers played their toughest schedule in some time, and without an SEC opponent. Duke, Louisville, and UCF each won at least 10 games. The three beat Memphis by a total of four touchdowns. Which makes ugly losses to Temple and SMU all the more painful. The Tigers were three or four plays — and several penalties, let’s remember — from a five- or six-win season. But they also lost to Temple by 20 points. And UConn by 35. Make of this jumble what you will.
• The Tigers have not had a first-team all-conference player since Jamon Hughes was honored by Conference USA after the 2010 season. That will surely change later this week, with punter Tom Hornsey — a finalist for the Ray Guy Award — due a salute from the American. Had Bobby McCain stayed healthy, he may have joined Hornsey. And it will be interesting to see what kind of support defensive end Martin Ifedi receives. The junior pass rusher had 8.5 sacks in the Tigers’ first seven games, but only three more over the last five.
• Looking at attendance figures (tickets sold), the Tigers averaged 28,537 for their seven home games this season, compared with 24,371 last year (and 20,078 in 2011, Larry Porter’s last year as head coach). That’s significant and measurable growth, though still less than half the capacity at cavernous Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The season’s largest crowd attended the opener (44,237) while the smallest turned out for the SMU game on October 19th (16,241). Keep this in mind: Since the Liberty Bowl became their home in 1965, the Tigers have averaged 40,000 fans (two-thirds capacity) exactly three times: 1976, 2003, 2004. I don’t know what the solution is for this program’s long-term health, but I know a stadium with (at least) 20,000 empty seats is not part of it.
It was a bad season, and I hand down such judgment entirely based on the beatings Memphis took in its last two games. Having seen the Tigers compete so fiercely against the American’s top two teams (UCF and Louisville), who saw the drubbings against Temple and UConn coming? Had the Tigers not suffered fourth-quarter heartbreak against the Knights, and had they cut their penalties (15 for 145 yards) in half and beaten Middle Tennessee, we’re reviewing a 5-7 season, a victory shy of bowl eligibility. That same record could have been achieved, though, by beating Temple and UConn.
The Memphis Tigers will land on the schedule of American foes next fall as a winnable game, no matter the opponent. It’s hard to feel emboldened by any traces of progress this fall.