While the Tulane football team was preparing for the New Orleans Bowl at the end of 2013, Memphis was mopping itself off the floor after embarrassing blowout losses to then-doormats Temple and Connecticut (combined record: 5-19) left them 3-9.
Suffice it to say the undefeated, 16th-ranked Tigers, who enter Saturday’s game at the Liberty Bowl as a whopping 31½-point favorite over the Green Wave, recovered from that swoon.
“We knew as soon as that last game was over, we were going to go into the offseason and work our butts off and just dominate every day and every practice in the offseason and every summer workout,” said junior running back Doroland Dorceus, a New Orleans native who leads the Tigers in rushing. “We put it behind us and said let’s see where we have to get better. That’s the only thing we knew.”
Tulane is 5-14 since its bowl appearance, losing all five games it has played against power-five conference schools by at least 17 points.
Memphis has won 17 of 20 in the same span, earning a share of its first conference championship since the Missouri Valley in 1969 last season before vaulting into the national conversation with an emphatic 37-24 upset of Ole Miss two weeks ago.
Depending on what happens the rest of the way, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson will face questions about his job status as the school selects a new athletic director to replace the retiring Rick Dickson.
Memphis coach Justin Fuente, hired in December of 2011 just like Johnson, deflected a question about his interest in the open University of Miami job during Monday’s American Athletic Conference coaches’ teleconference.
“Obviously our kids have played well the last couple of years as we continue to try to build a tradition here,” Fuente said. “There seems to be quite a good buzz around town. I’m optimistic that it won’t be just because we played Ole Miss two weeks ago but because the Memphis Tigers are putting a good product on the field.”
The starkest contrast between the two teams is on offense. Memphis averages 48.9 points, the third highest total in the country, while Tulane averages 18.7 points, placing 118th.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who committed a month after Fuente took over, has been named AAC Offensive Player of the Week two consecutive times. After going 39 of 53 for 384 yards and three touchdowns against Ole Miss, he threw for a career-high 447 yards with four scores in a 66-42 win at Tulsa.
“That quarterback makes all the difference,” Johnson said. “He can hurt you with his legs and his arm, so you have to find a way to get him to do one thing and not the other.”
Memphis not a one-man show, though. Six Tigers receivers have at least 15 catches. Dorceus leads a ground game that averages 199.3 yards.
“We just wanted to keep it going and not go backwards,” he said. “Everybody thought last year was a fluke, but we’re showing that we’re capable of competing against anybody.”
The defense, which lost eight starters from 2014, has overcome some shaky moments. Cincinnati torched the Tigers for 752 yards in September but still fell 53-46. A week earlier, Bowling Green piled up 579 yards in a 44-41 defeat, and Tulsa had 534 yards last week.
Still, the Tigers made plays when it counted. They limited Ole Miss to 40 rushing yards and have held their last three opponents to 11 third-down conversions in 41 attempts.
“It’s an ongoing process for us,” Fuente said. “A couple of weeks ago we played pretty well against an awfully talented Ole Miss team. Last week, we made some mistakes that I hope we would get past that hurt us in that game. I have seen some progress, but I’d like to see it on a more consistent basis.”
Memphis is winning in a different way than a year ago, when it finished second in the AAC in total defense. The Tigers rank ninth this time, allowing 110 more yards per game, but the offense has more than compensated for that deficiency.
Those dark weekends at the end of 2013, when they lost 41-21 to Temple and 45-10 to Connecticut to hand each team its most lopsided victory of the year, have become a distant memory.
“When they recruited our class in 2013, they all said let’s change this place,” Dorceus said. “That was the plan. We wanted to change this place and have a winning program, so this is exactly what we envisioned.”