Area Teams Set Sights on Dream Seasons

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

When last we saw the University of Memphis football team, the Tigers were finishing Justin Fuente’s first season on an inspiring three-game winning streak. They checked out of Conference USA with a 4-4 league record. They provided hope as they start play this season in the new American Athletic Conference.

“We kinda got the feeling of winning,” said senior offensive lineman Antonio Foster. “And when you get the feeling of winning, you want to do more.”

The University of Memphis recently named freshman Paxton Lynch the starting quarterback. It might not be enough to improve on the team’s four wins from last year.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

Hard to disagree.

But wanting to win guarantees nothing. The Tigers face an upgrade in schedule and depth of competition. Meanwhile, the SEC teams closest to Memphis are in for the usual test of trying to win games in a league that is home to national powers Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, among others.

Here on the eve of the college football season, every team holds on to its hopes – hopes that have been marinating since last season. Here’s a quick look at the local teams of interest – best-case scenario and worst-case scenario for 2013.

MEMPHIS

2012 bottom line: Was 4-8 overall, 4-4 in C-USA, ended season on three-game winning and regained some self-respect.

2013 dream season: If the Tigers are going to have a special season it will have to be apparent early, because the season ends with three of four on the road, including at preseason No. 9 Louisville. A special season also would seem to hang on the strong right arm of 6-6 redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch, who once upon a time was recruited by Florida, and has beaten out senior Jacob Karam – last year’s starter and a Texas Tech transfer – for the Sept. 7 starting assignment at home against Duke. And yes, winning six games would be a dream.

2013 nightmare season: The defense, which became the team’s strong point in 2012, isn’t up to the AAC challenge and the Tigers again struggle to find a money running back. The result is the Tigers fall back and finish 3-9 with just one league victory.

Inside the huddle: “This year is huge for this program,” Karam said.

ARKANSAS

2012 bottom line: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the SEC. Hired former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema after season.

2013 dream season: Hogs could, and should, be 4-0 when they play first conference game at home against Texas A&M and, we assume, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. If they can just win two of three from Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, they can go bowling. Win all three and they easily could be at least 7-5 going into a bowl game.

2013 nightmare season: They lose one of the first four (say, to Rutgers on the road) and drop two of the aforementioned three games, which is possible. That likely would leave them right where they ended last season: 4-8.

Inside the huddle: “You want immediate success, which is what Coach B. has told us,” said center Travis Swanson. “We’re looking to be good this year. I think we’re gonna shock a lot of people.”

OLE MISS

2012 bottom line: Surprised everyone with a 7-6 season and bowl victory in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year; went 3-5 in the SEC.

2013 dream season: Rebels pick up the momentum from last season, win the season-opener at Vanderbilt, and with a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback score points in bunches en route to an 8-4 season that gets them in a better bowl game.

2013 nightmare season: Rebs lose the season-opener at Vandy and start year 1-3, also losing at Texas and Alabama. Team never recovers from rough beginning and misses chance at bowl game, with a loss at Mississippi State that leaves Rebels 5-7.

Inside the huddle: “We’re gonna be in the second year of our offense and we’re gonna know it better, the tempo,” Wallace said.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2012 bottom line: Started 7-0 and rose to No. 13 in the national rankings. Then the scheduled stiffened and the Bulldogs lost five of six and finished 8-5, 4-4.

2013 dream season: Fifth-year coach Dan Mullen is aiming for a fourth straight bowl season. Given this year’s schedule – at South Carolina, at Texas A&M and home vs. Alabama during a brutal three-week stretch in November – going 6-6 with a win at home over Ole Miss to reach a bowl game would be a dream season.

2013 nightmare season: Might be unavoidable. If the Bulldogs lose to Auburn, Kentucky or Arkansas, there is probably no way to get to 6-6 and a 4-8 season looks very possible.

In the huddle: “Going 8-5, going to a bowl game isn’t good enough anymore,” quarterback Tyler Russell said in reference to Mullen’s goals.

TENNESSEE

2012 bottom line: The Derek Dooley Era ended 5-7, 1-7. Butch Jones, most recently coach at Cincinnati, replaced Dooley.

2013 dream season: The full dream season would see the Vols back in a bowl game and beating Vanderbilt, like they are supposed to, and Florida in The Swamp (a reach). Only the delusional believe beating Alabama is possible – even in a dream season.

2013 nightmare season: Vols Nation discovers its football program is a lot more like Kentucky than anyone wants to believe and Tennessee goes 2-6 in the SEC, 5-7 overall.

Inside the huddle: “We’re Tennessee. We don’t stay down,” said offensive lineman Tiny Richardson. “A lot of young talent, experienced offensive line, (a return to winning) is bound to happen.”

VANDERBILT

2012 bottom line: Went 9-4, 5-3 in SEC, but four of five league wins came against teams with losing records.

2013 dream season: Vandy slays an SEC East dragon – Georgia, South Carolina or Florida – and makes it to the SEC title game in Atlanta.

2013 nightmare season: Not only do the Commodores falter against the East’s Big Three, but they lose to Tennessee, Ole Miss (in the opener) and Texas A&M, sliding back to 6-6. Third-year coach/savior James Franklin realizes the Vanderbilt glass ceiling is real and starts job hunting.

Inside the huddle: “I like having Ole Miss to start (the season),” said cornerback Andre Hall. “Get our minds right, stay focused.”