Note: There is some strong language so viewer discretion advised.
Second Note: There is a high probability that this is not the last Top Gun clip to make its way into an AAC preview this week.
Last year Memphis was the co-champion of the AAC largely because of a spectacular defense, and it can be argued that the offense was merely the wingman to the Tiger D. This year, with more maturity and playmaking ability on offense and eight new starters on defense, it may be time for the defense to be the offense’s wingman.
Paxton Lynch had a very good season last year, and has as high a ceiling as any quarterback in the conference, even Gunner Kiel. If Lynch can continue to take strides toward reaching that potential, the sky is the limit for this Memphis offense. Paxton threw for over 3,000 yards last season, completed nearly 63% of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. He also had 13 rushing touchdowns, but did lose four fumbles.
One major area of improvement for Lynch is shaking off mistakes, he had a bad tendency to snowball one bad play into several and it cost his team games against Ole Miss and Houston and nearly again in the bowl game against BYU. Although, it should be noted that they likely would not have beaten Ole Miss anyway, but the point is still valid.
The running game could use some work with leading rusher Brandon Hayes gone, and someone will need to step up and help Lynch and the receivers out. Three guys that might be capable of doing that are Sam Craft, Doroland Dorceus and Jarvis Cooper. These three did combine for 11 touchdowns last year and Cooper and Dorceus averaged 5 yards per carry. One or more of these three needs to emerge as a true go-to back to help out the Tiger passing game.
They should have ample opportunities to do so too with an offensive line that has eight players with starting experience, including Louisville transfer Ryan Mack. Four players have double digit starts under their belt, also including Mack, and LT Taylor Fallin leads the line with 24 career starts. This group may not be the best in the conference, but they shouldn’t lag too far behind.
No receiver on this team, returning or departed, put up huge individual numbers last season, but as a group they ended up being pretty solid and most of them are back. Mose Frazier and Roderick Proctor offer solid possession options after both caught 75% of their targets last season. Frazier also showed some downfield ability averaging better than 10 yards per catch.
Tight end Alan Cross should also be a big part of the offense come fall, and many view him as the top tight end in the conference. Cross wasn’t a high use player last year, but he caught 70% of his targets and averaged over 13 yards per catch. Expect his usage to increase in 2015.
Unlike Temple, several of the biggest pieces from what was an outstanding defense last season are gone now. However, the talent is still there to be solid again in 2015, and much like Temple, it starts with the line.
There are plenty of pass rushers up front. Jackson Dillon had 9 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 2014. Ricky Hunter wasn’t far behind. He also had 3.5 sacks, but only 7.5 tackles for loss. Then there’s Latarius Brady and Ernest Suttles. They combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks, but both of them, particularly Suttles, figure to play a more prominent role in 2015.
Linebacker was the position that suffered the biggest losses in the offseason, with all three primary starters gone, but there are still some productive pieces returning. Leonard Pagues, Noah Robinson, and Genard Avery played in every game last year. Pagues had 6 tackles for loss and two sacks, while Avery matched the six tackles for loss and added five more sacks. My belief is that people may be underrating this group heading into the season.
It’s hard to even begin to rate this secondary though with so much from last season gone. Reggis Ball should start again at free safety, but he was still only fifth among defensive backs in tackles last season and hauled in only one interception. Those first four guys not only led the defensive backs in tackles, they also picked off 12 passes and broke up 23 more.
Prediction: 11-1 AAC Champion
Memphis went 10-3 last year and two of their three losses were to UCLA and Ole Miss. Both of those games were on the road, and they only lost to the Bruins by a touchdown and played Ole Miss around their peak. The schedule is a little softer this year, but they still will likely struggle to beat Ole Miss even in Memphis. Every other game on this schedule is winnable, it also helps that they get Navy and Cincinnati at home.
Credit Cover Photo to Associated Press