Fuente Succeeding at Va. Tech, Norvell Keeping it Rolling at Memphis

By Don Wade

With a thrilling 48-44 victory over then-No. 20 Houston the day after Thanksgiving, Mike Norvell became the only first-year University of Memphis coach to win eight games.

Interestingly, his eighth victory came as Tom Herman coached his last game at Houston. Herman is the new coach at Texas, succeeding Charlie Strong. The coaching ladder in the American Athletic Conference can definitely reach into the Power Five.

Justine Fuente, of course, was here just four years, posting 4-8 and 3-9 records his first two seasons. But then, Fuente inherited Larry Porter’s mess. Norvell got to follow Fuente’s 10-3 and 9-4 seasons.

Fuente’s rebuilding of the Memphis program earned him the Virginia Tech job and he immediately has proven worthy of the promotion. The No. 19 Hokies are 9-3, 6-2 in the AAC and Coastal Division champions. They will now meet No. 3 Clemson in the AAC Championship Game.

“We’re not done yet,” Fuente said after Virginia Tech thumped Virginia 52-10 to finish the regular season.

The Tigers, at 8-4 and 5-3, will not be playing in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Jerry Palm of cbssports.com projects them for the Dec. 20 Boca Raton Bowl vs. Southern Mississippi, the Tigers’ old friends from Conference USA. Last season, the Tigers lost to Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.

“Every bowl game is a reward and an opportunity,” Norvell said. “Wherever we get the opportunity, we’re going to be extremely grateful. We’re going to prepare to be victorious.”

Norvell, who is a first-time head coach after most recently spending four seasons as offensive coordinator at Arizona State, has more than established he was ready for the job. And if he leads the Tigers to another winning season and bowl game, he will be on bigger programs’ radar.

Truth is, there are probably any number of athletic directors that have his name on a list somewhere now, someone that they want to keep an eye on should they have a hire to make at this time next year, or the year after that.

But that’s a good thing. A sign the program continues to be relevant. Even after Fuente and Paxton Lynch.

After all, nobody ever had Larry Porter or Rip Scherer on that kind of list.

Vanderbilt Succeeds Where Tennessee Fails. When is a 6-6 season better than an 8-4 season? When that 6-6 season gets Vanderbilt bowl-eligible for the first time under coach Derek Mason and that 8-4 season under Butch Jones winds down with a 45-34 loss to the Commodores in Nashville.

Nice encore to Jones’ lame statements about winning the SEC’s East Division not being the only way to define what it is to be a champion.

Meantime, after the loss to Vandy, defensive end Derek Barnett was blunt: “This is unacceptable and I’m embarrassed.”

That is exactly what Butch Jones should have said.

Egg Bowl Leaves Egg on Face of Ole Miss. Mississippi State gave Ole Miss one last indignity this season, a 55-20 whipping in the Egg Bowl that meant the Rebels would finish the season 5-7 and 2-6. After starting the year ranked in the Top 15 in the country.

The Bulldogs end the season 5-6 and 3-5, but on a high note. That’s why coach Dan Mullen showed up at the post-game press conference with an unlit cigar in hand. He admitted that in the locker room, it was in fact “pretty smoky.”

When the smoke clears at Ole Miss there will be changes. Shortly before the Egg Bowl started, Ole Miss had announced that defensive coordinator Dave Wommack would retire at season’s end. Head coach Hugh Freeze indicated after the game that other changes may be coming to the staff

Ole Miss sophomore defensive lineman Javon Patterson said the disappointment of a season gone awry went deep.

“Because we set the expectations so high,” Patterson said.

Iron Bowl More Accurate than Ever. Not only did No. 1 and unbeaten Alabama defeat Auburn 30-12, the string of consecutive quarters the Crimson Tide have held Auburn out of the end zone stretched to 14-plus. An iron wall, as it were.

Auburn didn’t even earn a first down until almost 25 minutes into the game.

Alabama now meets Florida in the SEC Championship Game. And given that all the other College Football Playoff contenders already have at least one loss, the theory goes that this is a free game of sorts for Alabama.

No one dislikes that notion more than Bama coach Nick Saban.

“I hate it when you say that,” he said. “I hate it when you put that on TV, radio, internet, any type of communication.”