The 2018 Memphis Tiger football team opens its preseason camp this Friday. Year three of the Mike Norvell era opens with the coach newly signed to a contract extension that could — emphasis, could
— keep him on the Liberty Bowl sideline through the 2022 season. Still two months shy of his 37th birthday — he's a decade younger than a certain, quite popular basketball coach in town — Norvell has 18 wins under his belt and a Top-25 finish for last season's 10-3 team.
So what's next? There are far more questions than answers during any training camp. Here are three to get things started.
How will the Tigers wear the hat of favorites?
In the American Athletic Conference's preseason media poll, the Tigers were picked to win a second consecutive West Division title, and it wasn't close (Memphis received 23 first-place votes to four for second-place Houston). We are but six seasons removed from a 2-10 campaign that had Memphis well shy of relevance on the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) landscape. Now the program is in the conversation when New Years Six bowl games are discussed, that lone, precious spot reserved for the top team outside the Power Five leagues.
The Tigers are now a hunted program, circled on the schedules of UCF (the defending AAC champ), Houston, and six other AAC teams. The roster is star-studded, with six first-team all-conference players (according to Athlon), and two — running back Darrell Henderson and kick-return maestro Tony Pollard — getting All-America consideration. Memphis will be heavily favored in five of its first six games, a trip to Navy being the lone roadblock, it appears, to a 6-0 start before UCF visits on October 13th. Can the Tigers motivate themselves from atop the AAC standings? For so long, a pigskin-sized chip has rested on the shoulder of Tiger players come game day. Can a front-runner stay hungry?
Can the Tiger defense win games?
In two years under Norvell, Memphis has alllowed 28.8 and 32.5 yards per game. (Last year's figure ranked 102nd among 130 FBS programs.) With its explosive offense, Memphis was able to win games last season in which the Tigers allowed 31 points (twice), 38, and 45 (twice). If there's any drop in offense from a year ago — the Tigers averaged a program-record 45.5 points per game — can the defense earn a win or two?
Cornerback T.J. Carter, only a sophomore, is already a star. Senior linebacker Curtis Akins appears ready to step into the leadership void left by Genard Avery (drafted by the Cleveland Browns). Linebacker Austin Hall and lineman O'Bryan Goodson have received preseason accolades. Perhaps this is the year the Tiger D flexes some muscle in resistance to high-powered attacks like that of UCF (the Knights beat Memphis in last year's AAC Championship, 62-55). Balance
is one of those crutch-words for football coaches (and analysts). New heights could be reached if Memphis finds balance between its offensive and defensive strengths.
Who will quarterback this team?
You didn't think I'd overlook the most pressing question on the depth chart, did you? The only thing worse than a football team having no quarterback is a football team having two quarterbacks. Between now and the opener (Mercer visits September 1st), Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will have to decide between sophomore David Moore (10 career pass attempts) and junior transfer Brady White (three games for Arizona . . . in 2016). Memphis has been spoiled by it quarterbacks the last four seasons, as Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson averaged 3,690 yards and 30 touchdowns over the period (all winning seasons).
Having lost All-America wideout Anthony Miller to the NFL, the Tigers' 2018 quarterback will be asked to trust the weapons remaining — Henderson, Pollard, Patrick Taylor, and Joey Magnifico to name four — and use a talented, experienced offensive line to chew up yardage. No heroics or record-breaking stat lines required. This will be a fun competition to watch throughout August. But keep that nugget of wisdom in mind: If one of these two signal-callers hasn't emerged by September, the Tigers have a significant hole in their attack.