Coach Justin Fuente inherited one of the worst football programs in the nation when he decided to become the head football coach at the University of Memphis. He is now faced with the tall task of building a winning program at a university that went 5-31 in the three seasons prior to his arrival.
The season did not start as well as hoped when Memphis lost to UT-Martin, but after an impressive win against Tulane on Saturday (to consider a football victory against Tulane impressive shows you how far Tigers football has fallen) fans are starting to believe that things are finally beginning to change for the better. They have more than one conference win for the first time since 2008, (the last time Memphis was bowl eligible) and with UAB and winless Southern Mississippi left on the schedule the Fuente era could end season one with a remarkable four wins.
Yet, are the Tigers really a better football program than they were a year ago through ten games under Larry Porter?
Porter did not come in under the best of circumstances either. He inherited a team that went 2-10 the previous season (outscored 418-262 on the year) and was well under the scholarship limit. Memphis lacked depth and experience in Porter’s first season which ended with just one win.
By the time the second year of Porter’s tenure started it seemed like he was already on the hot seat. A seat that got warmer after a 44 point loss to Arkansas State in the second game of the season. Never mind the fact that it was true freshman quarterback Taylor Reed’s first start of his college career, or that Arkansas State would go on to have the best season in school history, all fans cared about was the fact that the Tigers were crushed by the Red Wolves. Arkansas State was a solid football team that went on to become Sun Belt Conference Champions, but the damage was done from a fan’s perspective and it was the beginning of the end of Porter’s tenure at Memphis.
Adding to Porter’s demise was the fact that Memphis was shut out twice in the first ten games last year. They also had four losses of 40 points or more in the time span. So far under coach Fuente the Tigers have not been shut out, and their worst loss is by 34 points to East Carolina.
However, even with all of the blow out losses and poor play last year, it is hard to say that the team is better off now. Sure Memphis has two wins through ten games this year, but they had two wins through ten games last year. They were plus 12 in turnovers last year, but this year they are minus one in the turnover department. Through ten games last year they averaged 16.5 points per game while giving up 35.4 points. It is a little bit better this year with the Tigers averaging 20.5 points while allowing 33 points per contest. Scoring four points more while holding opponents to two points less is not a major accomplishment and does not make this year better than last year.
And have we all forgotten about the loss to open the season to UT-Martin already? So what if the game was delayed by nearly three hours and UT-Martin is ranked No. 23 in the Sports Network FCS College Football Poll. They are still an FCS program and Memphis is supposed to beat them. Porter beat Austin Peay last year and was undefeated against FCS teams in his tenure.
Fuente went to Jonesboro and lost just like Porter did the year before, but you could not tell from the way fans and media members were reacting. The loss was deemed a testament to how much better the Tigers are this year as opposed to last year. Sure they did not lose by 44 points, but they still lost. If almost winning games counted for anything then Porter should still be around. After all, during the first ten games of the season last year he almost beat MTSU and UAB (and lost to Marshall by one in the eleventh game).
So the answer to the question is yes, the Tigers are better this year than they were last year, but not because of performance. Fans simply like Fuente more than they liked Porter. Fuente has accomplished something that his predecessor could not do. He is changing the perception of Memphis football. And we all know perception is reality.
CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.
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