Just like Curtis Johnson at Tulane, Memphis coach Justin Fuente was hired in December of 2011 to take over a program that had hit rock bottom.
Unlike Johnson, Fuente has the Tigers at the top of the American Athletic Conference with three games remaining in his third year. And unless the Green Wave pulls an upset as a double-digit underdog for Homecoming on Saturday, Memphis should cruise to at least a share of the league championship. The Tigers (6-3, 4-1 AAC) will be huge favorites over South Florida (3-6) and Connecticut (2-7) at home after playing Tulane (3-6, 2-3).
Taking a title would be massive at Memphis, which last won a conference championship as a member of the Missouri Valley in 1969 and was 7-17 through Fuente’s first two seasons. Until it happens, though, Fuente refuses to get caught up in the excitement.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “The kids are continuing to work hard and battle through adversity. Overall, we’re continuing to push forward. We’re not exactly where I’d like us to be, but there are continuous efforts by our coaches and our players to get to that point.”
The point Memphis already has reached is farther than Tulane’s progress under Johnson. The Tigers lead the AAC in rushing, averaging 192.2 yards, and are fourth or higher in the other nine major team statistical categories — scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, total defense, rushing defense, pass offense, pass defense, pass efficiency and pass defense efficiency.
Tulane is fifth or worse in every category except for rush offense, where it is third.
While Tulane lost to currently ranked non-conference opponents Duke and Georgia Tech by a combined score of 85-34, Memphis battled UCLA to the wire in a 42-35 loss in September.
So why has Fuente, the co-offensive coordinator at TCU from 2009-11 before arriving at Memphis, taken his team to the top sooner than Johnson?
Part of the answer lies in the rosters they inherited. Memphis won three games in two years under former coach Larry Porter, but Porter recruited significantly better than Tulane under Johnson’s predecessor, Bob Toledo. The Tigers ranked 58th in the 2010 Rivals.com recruiting rankings and 66th in 2011 while the Green Wave failed to crack the top 100 either season.
The payoff has come now. Memphis starts eight seniors and one redshirt junior on defense. It has three redshirt seniors and three redshirt juniors starting on offense.
Tulane has only four starters who have been in the program for more than three years — senior wideout Justyn Shackleford, redshirt junior offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis, senior offensive tackle Sean Donnelly and senior safety Sam Scofield.
“We had our seniors last year (when Tulane went 7-6, ending a streak of 10 losing seasons), and they have them this year,” Johnson said. “That’s the way you have to build a program. If you look at their roster, they’re doing it the right way. They’re a senior-laden team. They took their bumps and bruises their first couple of years and now they’re playing well.”
The secret to Memphis’ success may not be that simplistic, though. Sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch has improved dramatically from his freshman year, when he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) and averaged a paltry 5.9 yards per attempt.
This season he has completed 65.1 percent of his passes, averaged 7.6 yards per attempt and thrown 11 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
After watching video of Memphis’ games, Scofield praised the offensive coaching. Fuente, who already has a background on offense, brought in former North Texas coach Darrell Dickey as his offensive coordinator.
“They really game plan for teams’ defenses,” Scofield said. “It’s crazy watching their film how it’s literally a different offense every week. They have a really good game plan every week.”
Fuente’s biggest accomplishment on defense has been getting the players he inherited from Porter to buy into his system. The Tigers lost cornerback Taurean Nixon, who transferred to Tulane and will start Saturday, but retained most of their key guys.
Last Friday, Memphis became bowl eligible for the first time since 2008, winning at Temple 16-13. The holdovers credited Fuente with a complete team makeover.
“We didn’t know how to be a team,” said senior linebacker Charles Harris, a three-year starter with 226 career tackles. “Coach Fuente and his staff did a great job of just teaching us what a team meant, the principles and foundation of a team.”