For the first since 2008, the University of Memphis is bowl eligible. It was a long and arduous path back to bowl eligibility for the much beloved Tigers full of embarrassing losses, a coaching change, and a jump (albeit for one year) to a BCS automatic bid conference.
The Tigers have gone 12-48 since their last trip to a bowl six years ago, but they are currently 6-3 on the year and Memphis fans everywhere are rejoicing.
Yet why merely settle for bowl eligibility? This team should set their sights on something much more significant, a conference championship.
This was unexpected to say the least, especially since the Tigers are in just their second season of the American Athletic Conference. With the Cougars loss to Tulane, all Memphis has to do is win out and they will get at least a share of the American Championship.
A conference championship would be historic for a Memphis program that last one a championship as a part of the Missouri Valley Conference way back when.
Five Reasons Why the Tigers Football Team Will Win the American Athletic Conference Championship:
1. Favorable schedule down the stretch
To say the Tigers have an easy final three games of the year is disrespectful to USF, UCONN, and Tulane. After all, they have scholarship players like Memphis and pride on the line also. However, compared to the opponents Memphis had to start the year (Ole Miss and UCLA especially), the final three games of the year are, for lack of a better word, easy.
The Huskies and Tulane sit at the bottom of the American standings, and the Tigers final three opponents are a combined 9-19.
Not only is Memphis facing three overmatched teams, 2 of those games are at home. The schedule could not be set up better for a six gamewin streak to end the year, and a conference championship.
2. No UCF or East Carolina on the schedule
The scheduling gods really favored Memphis this year allowing the Tigers to avoid two of the best teams in the American.
The Pirates of East Carolina are ridding the nation’s third best passing attack all the way to an impressive 6-2 record, and had it not been for five turnovers in Philadelphia, ECU would still be undefeated in conference play.
UCF sits at 5-3 with respectable losses to Penn St. in Dublin by two points, and a Mizzo team that currently sits atop the SEC East. The Knights were bitten by the turnover bug much like ECU, surrendering four turnovers in route to their only loss in AAC play.
Since Memphis currently holds the tie breaker over Cincinnati (who also only has one loss), and avoids both ECU and UCF, should the Tigers win out they are guaranteed at least a share of the American Conference Championship. By the way, ECU and UCF play at the end of the year so one of them is guaranteed to lose one more game.
3. The Tigers run game seems to be unstoppable
It has been a while since we have seen the University of Memphis field an offense this potent. This is an offense that is currently fourth in the American in passing yards per game (240.7 ypg) thanks to the maturation of Paxton Lynch.
However it is the Tigers ground game that is proving to be among the best in the nation. Memphis currently leads the conference in rushing with 192.2 ypg. That is quite the feat considering that Memphis only managed 23 rushing yards against Ole Miss earlier in the season. If you ignore that particular game the Tigers average rushing yards per game jumps to 213.4 ypg. Brandon Hayes leads the way for Memphis with his burst and power averaging 102.3 ypg on the ground. Opponents will have their hands full trying to stop Hayes the rest of the season.
4. Defense is really stepping up
If the old saying is true, and defense really does win championships, the Tigers are in stupendous shape. They have given up three touchdowns in a game just four times, and one of those was during the Tulsa game with the backups in. Two of the teams to score at least three touchdowns on this tenacious Tigers defense are currently ranked in the top 20 of the College Football Playoff Rankings (No. 11 Ole Miss and No. 18 UCLA). Memphis is allowing opponents to score just under 19 points per contest which is good for 13th best in the nation.
The Tigers are second in the American in tackles for loss thanks in part to star linebacker Tank Jakes’ 12 tackles for loss on the season (also good for second in the American). Their ability to get penetration and make plays behind the line of scrimmage is the main reason why Memphis sits third in the American in both passing and rushing yards allowed and second behind East Carolina in total yards allowed.
Should this defense continue to wreak havoc in opponents backfields offenses will continue to have a rough time scoring, and we all know that if you cannot score you cannot win.
5. Justin Fuente
The job head coach Justin Fuente has done since taking over in 2012 is truly remarkable. He inherited one of the worst programs in the nation and all he did was lead them to three straight wins down the stretch of his first season, giving the Tigers a .500 record in conference for the first time since 2008.
Then, right in the midst of his rebuilding efforts, Memphis made the jump from an easier Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, no easy task for a team that was as inexperienced as Memphis.
Even though the losses continued to pile up, fans saw signs of improvement. Fuente had the Tigers within striking distance going into the fourth quarter much of last year, which is something people were not accustomed to seeing. In fact, in three of the Tigers losses last season, Memphis was either leading or tied at some point in the fourth quarter.
This season Coach Fuente has gotten the program to turn the corner as is evident by the way they played on the road against UCLA and Ole Miss early in the year. Memphis almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the college football season, but did not have enough to knock off the bruins in Pasadena. The Ole Miss contest was a one possession game until the Rebels pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Fuente is proving that he is one of the best up and coming coaches in the sport, and has this team believing in themselves. More importantly, he has the Tigers on the precipice of a conference championship, which is something nobody saw coming.
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