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Football Opponent Previews: Memphis Tigers

It can be a very difficult task getting excited about a team that has won 10 games in the last four seasons, but there is real cause for optimisim for the Memphis Tigers for the first time since the halcyon days of Deangelo Williams. Memphis boasts arguably the best defensive line in the conference, and one of the countries most underrated defenses as a whole, and a special teams group that will keep them in games. But what of the offense?

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Well, its pretty clearly the weak link. The offense was pretty dreadful a season ago, but there is hope even there. In Paxton Lynch they have their quarterback of the present and (hopefully) future. Lynch is a Brock Osweiler like 6'7" and 225 pounds. He has arm strength to burn, good pocket presence. As a bonus he is hard to tackle in or out of the pocket  because he is roughly the size and shape of an Oak tree. All of which are positive things to build on, but Lynch is far from a polished product.

Mr. Lynch was dead last among qualifying AAC quarterbacks in the efficiency metrics like QB ratingyards per attempt and he was third in completion percentage. In fairness to Lynch, the in 2013 AAC was a quarterback driven league to an almost comical extent. Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater were first round picks. Brendon Kay had a phenomenal season for not really having a functioning shoulder. John O'Korn and Garrett Gilbert threw for all of the yards. It was a tough league to make an impact as a young guy, however the need for growth where Lynch is concerned is obvious. It is imperative that he make a leap in efficiency if Memphis wants to get to a bowl.

In theory he will have more help at receiver this year than he had a year ago. The Memphis receivers left their quarterback out to dry a lot in 2013, the drops were endemic, and certainly contributed much to Lynch's subpar completion percentage. Those guys should be better this year, their third in the system. In Joe Craig, Sam Craft, Keiwone Malone and tight end Alan Cross Lynch are in theory a solid core to grow with. Depth is going to be a problem If any of those guys get injured, there simply isn't proven talent in reserve.

The running game will probably be ahead of the passing game again in 2014 just as it was a year ago. Paul Hayes is back and a clear threat to top the 1,000 yard mark after racking up 860 yards a year ago. The priority for the coaches has to be getting Hayes to the end of the season in good shape. There was a noticeable downward trend in November as the grind took its toll on Hayes. In November and December his yards per carry failed to top 4.0 in any game. Doroland Dorceus, Tearris Wallace and former Bearcat commit Robert Davis have to give Hayes some support this year. If offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey can get 500 yards out of his back ups the offense will be in OK shape. They have the line to be effective in the running game. We know this because many of the same players were starting a year ago and will be back. Like the rest of the offense, time and repetitions alone should make them better on offense.

That's really all they need from the offense, incremental improvement would do it. The defense carried the Tigers last year, and will do so again this year. Martin Ifedi is back, so is Ricky Hunter, so is Terry Redden and so is hybrid DE/OLB Jackson Dillon. This defense will go as far as the defensive line will take it, which should be pretty darn far. Those four accounted for 118.5 tackles, 39.5 TFL and 19 sacks a year ago and form what is pretty obviously the best returning defensive line in the conference.

However as you move further from the line of scrimmage the Tigers defense becomes less and less formidable. All three starting linebackers return this year, which is great from a continuity standpoint. But the linebackers are very much second fiddle on this defense. Tank Jakes, Charles Harris and Ryan Coleman form a solid group of linebackers, but there isn't a true standout among them. That could become an issue if the injury bug hits up front. Regardless, with a line that strong the lack of difference makers among the linebackers isn't a huge problem, in many cases solid will do the job. That's the Tigers at linebacker, unquestionably solid.

Its at the third level where things start to get dicey. The pass defense was by far the weakest link in an otherwise good Memphis defense in 2013. That was with multi year starters at safety in Lonnie Ballentine and Anthony Watson in the fold, but both have departed. So the Tigers are starting over at safety this year, with Reggis Bell and Dion Witty looking like the odds on replacements. Both guys have been in the program for a few years, and should perform credibly in their new starting roles, but no one really knows if that is true.

The good news in the secondary is that basically every corner of note is back this year, starters and backups. Bobby McCain and Andrew Gaines are both back for another run in the starting spots. As are Chris Morley and Dontrell Nelson, so depth isn't going to be an issue there. For what its worth It wouldn't be that surprising if Morley or Nelson see time at safety if Barry Odom finds the safeties performance lacking.

This is a nasty and underrated defense. They might not have all world talent at every level, but they have a dominant defensive line and a supporting cast at the second and third levels that are perfect supports for that defensive line. The big question is whether Paxton Lynch is really the answer at quarterback. If he is, and if he makes a big leap forward the Tigers could find themselves in a bowl for the first time since 2008. A bowl is a realistic goal for a team that has a defense and special teams that are this good, even with a dicey situation on the flip side of the ball. The AAC media pegged Memphis at 7th, which seems a bit low to me. I fully expect them to be in the top half of the league in 2014.