Fuente’s Tigers Making Strides in Year 3

Posted on October 29, 2014

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By: Travis Nauert

unnamedNearly a decade later, DeAngelo Williams is still the measuring stick. A reminder of where Tiger football once was, and the winning ways the program works to restore.

During Williams’ career from 2002-2005, Memphis went 27-21. Almost half of those losses came in 2002 when the team was 3-9. His sophomore, junior, and senior years saw 9, 8, and 7 wins, respectively.

But in the 6 seasons following Williams’ departure, from 2006-2011, the Tigers amassed an underwhelming 20 wins and an overwhelming 52 losses. Long time coach Tommy West kept the program afloat with an even 13-13 record from 2007-2008, but 2-10 seasons in 2006 and 2009 had fans calling for change.

Larry Porter, West’s replacement, was change, but not for the better. 3 wins and 21 losses in two years left the Liberty Bowl empty. Porter was fired following his second season. Shortly thereafter, the U of M named Justin Fuente as head coach. His task: reenergize a depressed program. After two years as quarterbacks coach at TCU, capped by an undefeated season in which Andy Dalton led the Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl victory, Fuente took his shot at leading a Division I program.

A 1-8 start with losses to UT-Martin, Arkansas State, and Middle Tennessee did not seem like progress. But a late season run helped Memphis end 2012 with a 4-8 record. That was enough for the athletic department to extend Fuente’s contract through 2017.

The 2013 team took a step back in the win column by going 3-9, but a look at the box scores tells a different story. Against Middle Tennessee and Central Florida, Memphis lost 4th quarter leads in the final two minutes. A late surge against Louisville cut the Tigers’ deficit to 7 points with 6 minutes to go. So there was competitiveness. Had the team held on against MTSU and UCF, Memphis would have started the season 3-1.

Which brings the discussion to 2014. Last week’s 48-10 throttling of SMU improved the team’s record to 4-3. That came two weeks after a disappointing 28-24 home loss to Houston. So, 7 games into the year Memphis has matched their win total from two years ago and surpassed it from last year. And there are 5 games to go. The toughest remaining test is a 4-3 Temple team that beat Vanderbilt by 30 on opening weekend.

But the most encouraging signs have come in two of their three losses. Week 2 took Memphis to Pasadena for a meeting with then #11 UCLA. A productive offense led by second year QB Paxton Lynch took the game down to the wire in a 42-35 loss. Entering the season UCLA was a trendy pick as a potential college football playoff team. That’s not the case anymore, but they still boast one of the country’s best quarterbacks in Brett Hundley. Regardless, the Tigers flew across the country and nearly pulled off what would have been the early upset of the year.

Two games later Memphis traveled to Oxford to play rival Ole Miss. They stayed within one score (7-3) until what the country now knows as a top 10 team eventually wore down the outmanned Tigers in the 4th. Some don’t believe in moral victories. Given the circumstances and state of the program, this team can legitimately claim two.

It’s not even worth comparing the resources, recruiting and size of UCLA and Ole Miss to Memphis. Despite these discrepancies, Memphis failed to be intimidated. It’s by no means a given that Memphis will win out the rest of the season, but they could very well be favored in all of their games save for Temple. Regardless, at least 6 wins and a bowl game should be in store for the first time since 2008/2009.

Although there aren’t any DeAngelos on this team, Fuente’s Tigers are headed for the same level of success that was had in #20’s time. Plus, there’s only one DeAngelo.

Travis Nauert is a Memphis native who recently graduated from The University of Alabama. Read his coverage of the Memphis Grizzlies at http://www.bearsofbeale.wordpress.com.

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Posted in: Sports, Tigers