Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
I’m old enough to remember that Memphis used to be one of the worst college football programs in the FBS. And, truly, it wasn’t all that long ago!
Between 1977 and 2002 the blue and gray Tigers won 6 games or more six times, never eclipsing that total for the entire 25-year span. Then, in Tommy West’s third year in charge, the Tigers finally broke through with a 9-win campaign and their first bowl win since the 1971 Pasadena Bowl. West followed that up with 8-win and 7-win seasons in ‘04 and ‘05, respectively, before bottoming out at 2 wins in 2006. A dead cat bounce in ‘07 led to a 7-win campaign (and a New Orleans Bowl loss) before falling back down to 2-wins in ‘09 and an unsurprising firing at the conclusion.
That lead Memphis to hire Larry Porter, at the time LSU’s running backs coach and assistant head coach to Les Miles. Hoping to capture some of that Cajun voodoo from their brethren to the southwest, Porter’s Tigers somehow managed to get worse, crumbling ten spots in SP+ and managing a mere three wins in Porter’s (barely) two years in charge. Memphis pulled the escape hatch quickly, not wanting to figure just exactly how deep the Porter hole could go. But seriously, look at the SP+ chart...it was deep and bad:
But then a funny thing happened. Memphis athletic department hired TCU’s offensive coordinator Justin Fuente, a guy with barely ten years of coaching experience and zero head coaching experience, who had been the co-offensive coordinator for the surprisingly good TCU offenses of the late aughts/early teens. Fuente assembled a staff of dudes who were young and hungry and affordable - including future Texas A&M coordinator Darrell Dickey and some dude named Barry Odom - and immediately improved the quality of the team by 15 points in SP+. They were still 10 points away from average, mind you, and won only four games but it was 400% more wins than they year previous AND the Tigers finally had an identity and an edge. The ‘13 team improved another 7 points but won one fewer game and then - POOF - it happened: a 10-win season in 2014 and their first bowl win since 2005.
The ‘15 squad pulled off a 9-win campaign as Fuente was scooped up by Virginia Tech and replaced by outsider Mike Norvell, the former Arizona State coordinator. The Fuente staff exited stage right while Norvell’s boys entered stage left and the Memphis Tigers held strong, ripping off 8, 10, 8, and 12-win seasons, the latter of which culminated with the highest SP+ ranking Memphis has ever had, a 18.0.
But then Norvell was hired away by Florida State, Memphis promoted from within with former offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield, and...well, the highs of the Norvell era are gone and the Tigers began to regress.
Here’s what they did last year:
The ‘22 squad actually improved in SP+ - going from a reeling 1.0 to a 8.8 - but the win totals in the Silverfield era total are 8, 6, and 7; certainly not bad - especially given that 25-year drought - but the magic of the mid-teen teams seems to have finally run out. However, the good news is that, other than a 16-point loss to Mississippi State and 10-point loss to AAC champ Tulane, all of Memphis’ losses were by one-possession; in fact, Memphis was a cumulative 9-points short from an additional four wins on the year. Going 0-4 in one-possession games isn’t great but it might hint at the Tigers getting back on the right track.
Or that might have been the most the Silverfield era could muster. Who knows!
Ryan Silverfield - 4th Year - 21-15 (11-13)
Up until 2014 Ryan Silverfield was an NFL guy, working menial, low-level jobs for his first nine years before jumping up to the pro ranks and, eventually, coaching both lines for the Minnesota Vikings. But once Leslie Frazier was fired for failing to win a road game in 2013, Silverfield was in need of a landing spot and ended up being an “offensive consultant” for Jason Candle’s Toledo Rockets. He then was hired by Mike Norvell to do some analyst work for Arizona State...and then followed his coordinator to Memphis to serve as his offensive line coach and assistant head coach. Silverfield saw first hand the highest highs the program ever reached and then was handed the reigns once Norvell scooted out to Tallahassee.
The hope was the Silverfield could continue to build on the gains achieved under the Norvell era but, so far, it seems like he’s merely a steward for a freshly minted bourgeois program, making sure it doesn’t sink back to its doldrums until the next impact head coach can be found. Truthfully, I have no read on if Silverfield’s job is at risk but his peers certainly believe his program has lost a step since the halcyon Novell days and, if he isn’t able to break through to another double-digit win season, he very well could be a casualty of an itchy trigger finger in the athletic department.
Tim Cramsey - Offensive Coordinator: Tim Cramsey showed up in Memphis last year with an interesting reputation. An offensive coordinator since 2009, he first broke through with New Hampshire, a warp-speed offensive school that utilized the Chip Kelly philosophy of offense that was made popular in Oregon in the late aughts. He then spent one year at FBS bottom-dweller FIU before going back to the FCS with Montana State, before one-and-done-ing his way through run-oriented Nevada and options-based Sam Houston. He then found a 4-year home at Marshall, improving its offense from 113th in his first year up to 43rd in 2021. However, his Memphis offense last year was his highest-rated yet, coming in at 29th. It’s hard to get a read on this dude since he’s dabble in all sorts of offenses and only had elongated stays in two of them. What he actually wants to do and whether he’s good at it or not is a bit of a mystery, especially since what Memphis did well last year (passing the ball) is getting a total face lift.
Matt Barnes - Defensive Coordinator: Speaking of interesting reputations, Matt Barnes is certainly not a guy people think of when they’re looking for a defensive coordinator. He played linebacker for Salisbury University but coached running backs for two years before becoming an offensive coordinator at West Virginia Wesleyan. He ended up at Will Muschamp’s Florida for three years doing GA work before doing the same at Michigan once Muschamp was fired. He was then the special teams coordinator at Maryland and Ohio State for six years...and then was hired to his first defensive coordinator job at Memphis. His first defense that he crafted was pretty good at what it did well and awful at what it did poorly, ranking 80th in SP+. It’s tough to attribute blame for the first time coordinator at a school he’s never been at before but, suffice to say, he should probably finish better than 80th this year.
Chris White - Special Teams Coordinator
Sean Dawkins - Running Backs
Larry Smith - Wide Receivers
Brad Salem - Tight Ends
Jeff Myers - Offensive Line
Kyle Pope - Defensive Line
Jordan Hankins - Linebackers
Charles Clark - Defensive Backs
Memphis’ offense last year made it very clear about one thing: they did not want to run the ball. They ranked 74th in rushing attempts on standard downs and 100th on rushing attempts in passing downs while ranking 58th in rushing success rate. The ground game was neither efficient nor explosive (85th in rushing explosiveness!) but that was ok...because the passing game was both. The 40th best passing attack in the country had one of the lowest interception rates, one of the fewest contested pass rates, ranked 44th in completions of 20+ yards, and had a healthy explosiveness rate through the air. They also allowed pressure on only 1.9% of their drop backs and ranked in the Top 25 in converting all manner of 3rd-downs, short, medium, or long. But despite benefiting from the 8th best field position margin in the country and +7 in turnover margin, they fizzled out in scoring position, ranking a decent but disappointing 51st in finishing drives given their advantages in starting position and turnovers. The hope is that a quarterback entering his third year with more options on the ground can help finish drives as they completely overhaul their pass catchers.
Quarterback - Seth Henigan - Junior
Seth Henigan has only been in college for two years but already has 24 games under his belt, throwing for a career 62% completion percentage, a robust 7.6 ANY/A, and a 47-16 TD-INT ratio to go along with his nearly 7,000 yards through the air. Oh, and he’s also run the ball 168 times for 746 yards. Memphis might not have liked to call runs but Henigan loved to scramble out of passes and make something happen, finishing with 111 carries last year with 4.5 yards per carry. He’s savvy and experienced which Memphis coaches are hoping can coverup for a receiving corps that is none of that.
Running Back - Jevyon Ducker - Redshirt Junior
If you’re looking for Memphis’ top returning rusher in terms of carries then you need to reference the entry above, quarterback Seth Henigan. However, running back Jevyon Ducker lead the team in yards and touchdowns while managing a mere 110 carries on the year. As a comparison, Nathaniel Peat - who barely saw the field after the Auburn game - had 100 carries on the year, so that gives you an idea of how heavily Ducker was utilized. In fact, five Memphis running backs combined for 315 carries in 2022, or - to put it another way - a mere six more carries than Cody Schrader and Brady Cook combined for in the 2022 season. Yes, Memphis threw it slightly more than they ran it - 486 pass attempts (not counting sacks) to 482 rushing attempts (counting sacks) - but they trusted their quarterback to do the running more than their running backs. It might be why Memphis brought in two new guys - Blake Watson from Old Dominion and Ka’Travion Hargrove from Mississippi State - to fill out the running back stable with more options.
Wide Receiver - Tauskie Dove - Graduate Student
Eddie Lewis (WR), Jason Ivory (WR), Caden Prieskorn (TE), Gabriel Rogers (WR), and Asa Martin (RB) were Memphis’ top five receiving targets, combining for 306 of the 446 total targets on the year. All five are now gone. That means that former Missouri Tiger Tauskie Dove - with his 16 catches on 35 targets last year - is the leading returning receiver for the Memphis Tigers. Joseph Scates had more yardage on fewer targets last year for Memphis and is of a similar build to Dove, but there is a noticeable lack of proven production among the Memphis pass catchers. Toledo transfer slot receiver Demeer Blankumsee was added to bring some proven versatility and Memphis also loaded up on JUCO tight ends and receivers in an attempt to immediately improve the experience level among the passing skill position folk. We all love what Tauskie Dove did for Missouri but he wasn’t the most sure-handed receiver; it’ll be interesting to see what an offense does when they love to pass but don’t have proven playmakers out wide.
There is one thing - maybe two things - that Memphis’ defense did well last year, but the main strength was this: they did not give up big plays. The Tigers ranked 17th in yards given up to explosive plays, 22nd in effective explosive plays, and 23rd in explosive play rate allowed, which is pretty dang good! That second quasi-strength? They sold out to stop the run, ranking 35th in rushing success rate allowed and 43rd in standard downs situations. So why did they rank 80th overall? Boy, were they flat-out awful in passing downs situations. 108th, to be exact. They could never figure out how to get an opponent off the field once it became 2nd- or 3rd-and-long, and the desire to play back and swarm to limit big plays came to bite them when offenses began taking all the yards they left open to them. Again, it’s hard to tell if this was by design or by necessity but their first-year coordinator learned a lot of lessons about “keeping it all in front of you” and the downsides of such an approach.
Defensive Line - Jaylon Allen - Graduate Student
Let’s get this out of the way: Jaylon Allen is a stud, and absolutely a problem for any offense out there. Allen played nearly every snap from his edge position and finished the ‘22 campaign with 67 tackles, 11 TFLs, 5 sacks, 16 run stuffs, 1 INT, and 1 pass broken up. He lead the team in TFLs and sacks and was easily their most disruptive player on the defense. And even Wardalis Ducksworth and CamRon Jackson are gone, second-leading sack master Cormontae Hamilton returns as well. There’s plenty of guys behind those two but they will be breaking in at least two new faces this year in a unit that wasn’t - outside of Allen and Hamilton - nearly as havoc-forward as needed.
Linebacker - Geoffrey Cantin-Arku - Redshirt Senior
Xavier Cullens and Tyler Murray siphoned most of the snaps at linebacker last year but neither are still on the team. Geoffrey Cantin-Arku still managed 506 snaps and 72 tackles so he’s a good option to replace the two listed above. Behind him, however, is anyone’s game. There are nine linebackers with three years of experience or less in the linebacking corps, plus one fifth-year rotational piece. They certainly have options, if nothing else, but this was the most disruptive position group last year and it’s hard to imagine that stays true - or gets better - given the lack of proven production.
Defensive Back - Greg Rubin - Junior
Perusing the Memphis defensive back depth chart you’ll see that they basically lose every other guy listed on there. Quindell Johnson, Sylvonta Oliver, Joshua Hastings, and Ladarian Paulk all had more than 364 snaps of experience last year and none are back. But Greg Rubin - their best corner - returns as well as some rotational pieces at the safety positions. Losing Quindell Johnson’s four interceptions - most on the team 25% of the season’s total - hurts real bad but they also portaled in Simeon Blair (via Arkansas), Malik Feaster (via Jacksonville State, late of Florida State), and Jaylen Johnson (via Ohio State) to help reinforce a position group that needed more talent badly.
So what does it all mean?
On October 20th, 2018, Barry Odom lead his 2018 team - the greatest Odom team, and third-best Missouri team since 2000 - against Mike Norvell’s G5 terror, one year before their big leap. Missouri jumped out to a 21-0 lead within 6 minutes of the game starting, and without star running back Darrell Henderson, Memphis could score but couldn’t keep up. Drew Lock threw for 360 yards and 4 touchdowns, Larry Rountree had 9 carries for 118 yards and 3 touchdowns, Albert O had 6 catches for 159 yards and 3 touchdowns, and even Jalen Knox (remember that guy?) finished with over 100 yards receiving.
Hold on a second...just remembering what it was like to watch a good Missouri football team. Sigh, memories.
Anyway...that was a much better Missouri team than we’ve seen around these parts the past four years but it was also the same quality of team that Memphis was last year. What’s my point? That Missouri can beat good G5 teams easily. And that good G5 teams can make a leap and get really good really quickly.
I’m not sure that’s the case here, though. Memphis gets a hard reset in the receiver room and tight end position and, even with a proven quarterback, that’s a hard limitation to work around when you like to throw. There’s options at running back but Memphis wasn’t very good at it last year (outside of its quarterback scrambling, anyway). And the defense can hem you in for two downs but got burned to a crisp when they absolutely had to stop opponents. It’s hard to fix all of that in a single offseason; it can be done, but not reliably.
This is the first of, hopefully, many games in St. Louis featuring Missouri against a regional opponent. Given this staff’s weighted importance on recruiting the area and the novelty/impact of playing a game in the Gateway City, it would be a great idea to win this game and do so comfortably. Any win is good but this is done to show off the “Zou to the Lou” program and show how superior they are to any other regional option. It also could keep potential undefeated-good-vibes going for another week.
Memphis is tricky but beatable. Go beat them, Missouri.