Memphis season preview

Today, we take a look at Memphis' 2013 campaign.

Memphis Tigers

Coach: Justin Fuente (4-8 overall, 4-8 at Memphis)

2012 record: 4-8

Key losses: WR Marcus Rucker, DB Robert Steeples

Key returnees: RB Brandon Hayes, TE Alan Cross, QB Jacob Karam

Newcomer to watch: LG Sam Thomas

Biggest games in 2013: Duke (Sept. 7), Cincinnati (Oct. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Memphis ranked second-to-last nationally in rushing offense two seasons ago, but in Fuente’s first season, the Tigers doubled their ground-game production, averaging 151.8 yards per game. With Memphis returning its top two running backs in Hayes (576 yards and six touchdowns in 2012) and Jai Steib (427 yards and six touchdowns in 2012), will the rushing attack become an even bigger part of the offense this fall? An offensive line that returns five players with starting experience could help the running backs’ production, too.

Forecast: Memphis will be at home or close to home to start the season with seven of its first eight games played in Tennessee. After doubling its win total from 2011 last season, Memphis will take any scheduling help it can get as Fuente works to continue to develop a program that now moves into a tougher conference. The Tigers open with Duke on Sept. 7.

“We know that we are obviously faced with an incredible challenge to build a football program while simultaneously taking a step up in competition,” Fuente said. “But we're going into this with our eyes wide open and with full understanding of what it's going to take to get the job done. And we're looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead.”

After winning its final three games of last season, Memphis returns 17 starters, including Karam. He completed a school-record 64.2 percent of his passes last season for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns. Though one of his top targets in Rucker is gone, Alan Cross returns after catching five touchdowns last season. And on defense, three of the top four tacklers return to a unit that led Conference USA in total defense in league games last fall. All four starters return to the defensive line.

Memphis was picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference, but with the experience and momentum the Tigers carry over from finishing last season on a winning note, they may do better than expected in their first American season.

“We know where we're at and where we're going to go and what we're going to do,” Fuente said. “So I don't take other people's opinions and consider that as a step backwards. We're just solely focused on ourselves. We made large strides last year. We'll make large strides this year. Where it all ends up, I don't know.”