MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis wants to keep providing evidence its resurgence is more than a phase. The Tigers made their case by posting a third straight winning season last year despite dealing with a coaching change and replacing a quarterback drafted in the first round. Memphis had gone a combined 12-48 in the six seasons before this three-year run.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis wants to keep providing evidence its resurgence is more than a phase.
The Tigers made their case by posting a third straight winning season last year despite dealing with a coaching change and replacing a quarterback drafted in the first round. Memphis had gone a combined 12-48 in the six seasons before this three-year run.
Memphis heads into the second year of Mike Norvell's tenure as the favorite in the American Athletic Conference West Division, according to a preseason poll conducted by the league's media. Memphis also was picked to win the West in 2015, when the Tigers still had former coach Justin Fuente (now at Virginia Tech) and former quarterback Paxton Lynch (now with the Denver Broncos).
"We've talked since January with our football team of understanding the expectations are going to continue to rise," Norvell said. "In Year One, there were so many question marks. You have a new coaching staff. You're replacing your first-round draft pick quarterback. So many unknowns of what we could expect. I think the past season we showed that the success of Memphis Tiger football is here to stay, the excitement and what we can build on."
Norvell led Memphis to an 8-5 record last season, giving him the most wins of any first-year coach in program history.
Memphis has one of the nation's most prolific pass-catch tandems, with Riley Ferguson throwing to Anthony Miller. Ferguson threw a school-record 32 touchdown passes last season.
Their return has produced plenty of optimism around Memphis - and has created a different kind of challenge for Norvell.
"We've spent so much time talking about how you respond to adversity," Norvell said. "Now we've got to be able to stay focused on the things that helped achieve that success."
Here are some things to watch with Memphis this season.
DYNAMIC DUO: Ferguson and Miller connected on 13 touchdown passes last season. The only returning Football Bowl Subdivision duo to connect on more touchdown catches last season was Washington's Jake Browning and Dante Pettis (15). Miller, a fifth-year senior, had 95 catches for 1,434 yards last season to set school records in both categories.
VETERAN LINE: Memphis returns four offensive linemen who started at least 11 games last season — Gabe Kuhn, Drew Kyser, Trevon Tate and Dustin Woodard. Kuhn and Kyser started all 13 games. That line will try to improve its pass protection this season after giving up 35 sacks last year.
SECONDARY CONCERNS: Safety Jonathan Cook is back after recording a team-high 88 tackles last season, but he's the only returning starter in Memphis' defensive backfield. The secondary also includes fifth-year senior Shaun Rupert, who didn't start but earned plenty of playing time last season. That secondary will try to maintain its nose for the football, as the Tigers forced 29 turnovers last year to tie for fifth among all FBS programs.
WELCOME BACK, DILLON: Linebacker Jackson Dillon is a three-year starter who played just one game last season due to knee injuries. He's now back as a fifth-year senior and could play a key role for the defense.
REPLACING ELLIOTT: Memphis must find a way to replace kicker Jake Elliott, the program's all-time leading scorer. Elliott, who earned first-team all-conference honors each of his four seasons, went to the Cincinnati Bengals in the fifth round of the draft. The job likely will go to freshman Riley Patterson.
PREDICTION: The Tigers have enough talent to win their division, though South Florida looks like the strongest overall team in the American. It wouldn't be a surprise if Memphis headed into bowl season with a 9-4 record after losing to USF in the American championship game.
SEASON OPENER: Aug. 31 vs. Louisiana-Monroe.