When Sam Craft found his way into the end zone during the final minute of last year's matchup between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Memphis Tigers, it plunged a dagger deep into the spine of UC's season. The Bearcats were projected as a favorite, or at least one of the few contenders, for the American Athletic Conference crown, but the 53-46 setback against Memphis was the their second league loss and September wasn't even over. It essentially put UC in a hole from which it could never and would never climb out.
Some of the key personnel from that Memphis team, and the one that walloped the Bearcats 41-14 in 2014, is no longer wearing blue tiger stripes. Head coach Justin Fuente cashed in on back-to-back seasons with at least nine wins and headed to the Power 5 pastures of Virginia Tech and the Atlantic Coast Conference. Meanwhile, quarterback Paxton Lynch came to the end of his college road and is now getting his NFL journey started with the Denver Broncos. On top of that, last year's top receiver (Mose Frazier) and the team-leader in interceptions (Reggis Ball) are all no longer on the roster.
Craft still is, and even if this won't be the exact same Memphis squad, there's no doubt that on Nov. 18, everyone in red and black will have their hearts set on revenge.
Memphis was one of two teams in the conference to average at least 40 points per game in 2015, with Houston being the other. The Tigers were a couple yards per game better than the Cougars as well, although they ranked third behind UC and Tulsa among AAC schools in total offense. Cincinnati's defense, which was notoriously sieve-like last season, was battered by Lynch and company, with the Tigers throwing up 570 total yards, including 412 through the air against the Bearcats.
Lynch accounted for all of those passing yards plus 52 on the ground. Cincinnati may have failed to figure out the Paxton puzzle, but they won't have to try again. However, it will still have to contend with another high-powered offense, or at least a team that wants to be firing on all cylinders in that regard. New head coach Mike Norvell was offensive coordinator at Arizona State the last three seasons. Last year, the Sun Devils averaged 477.4 yards per game and ran 1,070 plays, the most in the conference. That's a whole heck of a lot. Remember, air pirate Mike Leach runs the offense at fellow Pac-12 member Washington State and the Cougars only got off 1,032 offensive snaps. Norvell brought along Chip Long, a colleague of his at ASU, to serve as his offensive coordinator, so expect the coaching staff to instill the same type of torrid pace Norvell and Long were used to running in the desert.
Based on performances in the spring game, the battle for the first string spot at quarterback will be conducted between Riley Ferguson, Brady Davis and Jason Stewart. However, it is likely Ferguson's job to lose. A 6-foot-4 junior transfer who enrolled in January, he is considered one of the top JUCO transfers for 2016.
Norvell's Arizona State's team featured a very fluid rotation in terms of skill positions. Guys like D.J. Foster, Demario Richard and Marion Grice did a bit of everything. Doroland Dorceus (876 total yards, 11 TDs) is primed to be Memphis' version of Foster, with Craft (447 total yards, 7 TDs) another backfield jack knife. Phil Mayhue (51 receptions, 670 yards, TD) and Anthony Miller (47 receptions, 695 yards, 5 TDs) should get plenty of chances to step into and run away with Frazier's departed depth chart spot.
Lynch's departure sparks the most questions for Memphis, but losing offensive line stalwarts like all-conference tackle Taylor Fallin and Ryan Mack will make moving down field difficult as well.
Surprisingly enough, Memphis was not the better offense last September, it was just more careful with the ball. UC lost out on a major road victory despite an advantage in total yards (752-570), and first downs (38-22) primarily because of three turnovers. Hayden Moore threw for 557 yards and four touchdowns, but was picked off twice and Gunner Kiel threw a pick before being carted off the field following a brutal hit to the head.
After the dust settled on the season as a whole, and all the data became available, UC and Memphis turned out to be very similar defensive teams. The Tigers allowed 406.7 yards per game and Cincinnati was right behind them at 408.6. Both teams also allowed opponents to score on more than 80 percent of their red zone trips and convert on roughly 37 percent of their third downs.
Norvell inserted another former Sun Devil to lead his defense, with Chris Ball taking the keys to the Memphis D after three years as co-defensive coordinator at ASU.
There were no all-conference performers on last season's iteration of the Memphis defense, although kicker Jake Elliott helped highlight the strength of the special teams unit by earning his second-straight AAC Special Teams Player of the Year award. Elliott returns but defensive standouts like Leonard Peques (led team in tackles with 75) and Reggis Ball (noted above) will not, leaving the new regime without a full toolbox to work with. That will leave it to Shareef White (63 tackles, 7.0 TFL) and Christian Johnson (team-high 4.0 sacks) to pick up the mantle of defensive leaders and help the unit into the new era.
Its hard to imagine that Memphis won't take at least some steps back in 2016. Losing your all-conference quarterback and a coach that lifted you from the ashes all in one year is a tough pill to swallow, let alone digest. Norvell has a proven ability to build offensive juggernauts and there are enough pieces left to expect some fireworks, especially considering Ferguson could step in right away and be a success. However, a so-so defense and a change at the top that will take at least a little while to get used to will likely keep Memphis from flirting with double-digit wins yet again. That's not to say Cincinnati will be in for a cakewalk when these teams square off. I'd expect another offensive shootout, but with the Bearcats getting the better end of the deal this time.