After Saturday’s win over North Texas, now feels like the right time to put together a mid-season review of the Memphis Tigers season so far.
At 6-2, the Tigers are far improved from last year’s record, where they found themselves 4-4 at this same stage in the season. They’d struggled to beat any of the most challenging competition and lost four straight games in the middle of the season against Houston, East Carolina, Tulane, and UCF.
This year, things seem to be different, and while they’re not perfect, Memphis fans should be excited about the program’s potential going forward.
The two losses might sting, especially the loss against Tulane, but the Tigers are still working their way towards fighting for a top 25 rank, while the Green Wave are already able to contend for a spot. The other loss came against Missouri, who we now know are one of the better teams in the SEC this season.
They’re 7-1, and the only loss they’ve taken came in a fourth-quarter showdown against the LSU Tigers, who are ranked in the top ten. Losing by a touchdown against a top SEC team like that shouldn’t be overlooked, and there are certainly blocks the program can build on following those games.
The Tigers six wins put them in a strong position, and still very much in contention for the AAC title game. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that they absolutely had to beat all three opponents before they face SMU on November 18th. They’d just lost to Tulane, and getting the season back on track before that pivotal game was an absolute must. So far, so good, with a dominant win over UAB and coming out the right side of a shootout against North Texas.
The Charlotte 49ers are next up, and all being well, a win there sends the Tigers into the matchup with SMU prepped and ready to take them on in a game that will have significant implications for the conference title.
With eight games down and another four to go in the regular season, here are five key takeaways from the action we’ve seen so far.
1. This is the best roster the Tigers have fielded since 2019
We all remember the 2019 season. Brady White had a great year throwing to Damonte Coxie, Antonio Gibson, and Kedarian Jones, and then Kenny Gainwell dominated every time he touched the football.
There were playmakers everywhere, and the offense was thrilling to watch at times, with games like the 47-17 drubbing over Tulane and scoring 54 in a win over #15 ranked SMU being highlights in the memory.
The Tigers went 12-2 that year, but the subsequent lull has been challenging to endure, and it’s taken a couple of years and a serious recruiting effort to get the roster back to a place where it can challenge in the AAC. We’ll come onto the defense a little later in today’s piece, but there’s still some tidying up to do there, without a doubt.
The offense, however, has taken a jump in the last couple of seasons, now averaging over 34 points per game in 2023, compared to numbers below 29 in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Those are great signs for the future of the program, and the offense has found a couple of real difference-makers that perhaps have been lacking in recent years.
2. Blake Watson Is the Playmaker that the Tigers Lacked Last Season
Since his arrival, Blake Watson has grown into one of the stars of this team, and what a hidden gem he was transferring in from Old Dominion. Last season, the run game consistently let the offense down. Seth Henigan led the team in rushing with 477 yards, and our lead running back, Jeyvon Ducker, only reached 461 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the season.
Without the breakaway talent in the backfield, Memphis was forced into dropping back to pass more often than not. There was no reliability on the run game, no explosive plays, and it made life generally harder on the offense without somebody like Watson to take away the pressure.
This year, things are entirely different. Blake Watson is already 300 yards clear of any of our running backs from last season and has been the difference on multiple occasions, including the most recent win over North Texas, the Navy game, and his two crucial touchdowns against Boise State.
The star running back has been one of the best additions to the roster this season, and Ryan Silverfield and his staff deserve plenty of credit for finding such a talented back with the experience to carry the workload they required.
3. Roc Taylor Emerged as the Tigers’ WR1
Roc Taylor was never supposed to end up in Memphis, having been a long-term commit to the Tennessee Volunteers. When the Vols new staff pulled his offer the day before National Signing Day, Roc was thrown into a tailspin, but it all worked out nicely for both parties. Following a few quiet years in his first two seasons with the program, Roc Taylor emerged as a primary target for Seth Henigan early this year.
He had 24 receptions in total through the first two years on the team, but in 2023, his third year, he’s already at 41 catches and almost 600 receiving yards.
From Week 4 to Week 6, Taylor had three straight games with over 100 receiving yards. Not against any opponent either; those were the Missouri, Boise State, and Tulane games, showing that the Tigers’ new dominant wideout is coming up clutch in the biggest games. Taylor is now a crucial part of the offense, and the former three-star recruit will be needed at his very best as the Tigers push for the AAC title.
4. The Defense Remains to Be an Enigma
For all the good things about the Memphis Tigers program this season, the defense continues to be a huge question mark. Last year, the defense allowed around 383 yards of total offense per game, on average. That number put them 62nd in the country, and it’s nothing to be proud of.
This year, it’s worse. The number is closer to 440 yards of total offense, which is poor enough to put Memphis outside the top 110 programs in college football. You just aren’t going to have NY6 Bowl success or rank inside the top 15 in the country while your defense is playing like that. As soon as you run into a team like LSU or Oklahoma, they’ll put 60 points on you, ending your run.
Unfortunately, the Tigers aren’t good in either category. It’s not as if the run defense is holding up, but they’re getting torched deep down the field, or vice versa; they’re outside the top 100 in both categories.
Defensive coordinator Matt Barnes should be on thin ice. He came over from Ohio State, where his reputation wasn’t exactly glowing, and now has two years in a row of lacking output from the defensive side of the football.
5. The Team is Struggling to Produce For all Four Quarters Consistently
This remains to be a significant issue. Memphis can’t string together a performance that lasts the entire game. Either they start slow and get hot in the second half, or they start well and tail off at some point later in the game. Indeed, this comes down to discipline, focus, conditioning, and many other factors, but the team can’t keep going missing for quarters at a time.
Take the Tulane game. They had a great second quarter, scored early in the third quarter, and then vanished. Tulane came back and won the game, and Memphis never had a response. It can’t keep happening, and becoming more of a four-quarter team must be the focus in the future.
Midseason Performance Grade: B
I think a B is a fair grade, considering the way this season has gone so far. In some areas, things look great. The Tigers are playing some great football on offense, and the emergence of both Blake Watson and Roc Taylor is enough to get excited about as a fan.
There are some hidden gems within the shoddy defense, too, namely, senior Geoffrey Cantin-Arku, whose blocked field goal return against Boise was one of the year’s highlights so far.
After trailing by 17, Memphis beat Boise State 35-32 in a battle of top 10 @HERO_SportsCFB G5 teams
Memphis is now 4-1 while Boise State falls to 2-3
— Colton Pool (@CPoolReporter) October 1, 2023
On the contrary, lackluster quarters and entire halves without any success quickly diminish any excitement, and those are the things the coaching staff needs to tidy up if this upward trajectory is to continue.
In summary, it’s been a positive year for the Tigers, and if they can address their flaws, the season could become very memorable for the program.
The Tigers are 6-2 with the same record as SMU, and they are set to play them in two weeks. Tulane leads the conference at 7-1, meaning that in all likely cases, the winner of the SMU-Memphis game will have the best shot at meeting the Green Wave in the AAC Championship game.
As earlier mentioned, Memphis needed to beat the opponents in front of them after the Tulane loss, giving them a shot at redemption when it came to SMU. That mission has gone to plan so far, barring a late scare against North Texas last week. The Charlotte 49ers mark the final stop before that big game, but it’s crucial not to overlook them. Focus on that game, win that game, and then take down SMU to regain your status as a contender in the AAC.
Of course, only playing good football for two and a half quarters won’t be enough to beat the Mustangs. Memphis will need to play well the entire game, and Ryan Silverfield must figure out why his team goes missing for long periods in the middle of games.
Perhaps they’re not motivated enough, or maybe they don’t have enough of a presence of leadership amongst them, but guys need to step up and hold their teammates accountable. If this Memphis team can take it to their opponents for four quarters, they can win the AAC Championship this season.
They have the talent and the experience, and it’s certainly a window of opportunity, considering the number of seniors playing key roles this year. It would be a shame to see it go to waste because of an ugly defensive performance or a meltdown in the third quarter, so let’s tighten up before we go the rest of the way.
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