Memphis finds itself in a unique position this season -- that of a conference contender. After advancing to their first bowl game in 32 years, the Tigers will be expected to vie for the Conference USA title in 2004.
It's heady stuff for a program that suffered through eight straight losing seasons from 1995-2002. The Tigers hadn't won seven or more games in a season in more than 25 years, but won nine games last fall and earned an invitation to the New Orleans Bowl.
"The big thing is we can't start thinking that we are somebody that we're not," head coach Tommy West said. "There's a difference in having a quiet confidence and being arrogant. That's a fine line. I've always said I want a confident team. And I like a team that has a little swagger to its step."
Memphis' swagger will be initiated by junior running back DeAngelo Williams, who set the school's single-season rushing record (1,430 yards) last season and was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Quarterback Danny Wimprine returns for his senior season with his name attached to most of the school's passing records.
"I think it's important our players understand we are going to be the hunted," West said. "We are going to get people's best shots. I think it's a great position to be in because the good teams I've been around accept that responsibility."
OffenseOne of Conference USA's strongest offenses a year ago could be even stronger this fall. There are playmakers everywhere, starting with Williams, a powerful, explosive back who uses his blockers well. He is equally dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield.
Tavares Gideon, the team's second-leading receiver two years ago, is back after missing last season with a knee injury. He's joined by Maurice Avery, a converted quarterback who led the team in receiving last year, and senior Darron White, who made several clutch catches.
Directing the offense will be Wimprine, the MVP of last year's New Orleans Bowl. Wimprine possesses a strong, accurate arm and no longer forces balls into coverage as he did earlier in his career.
Memphis' offensive line is loaded with depth and veteran leadership. The Tigers should start seniors from tackle to tackle, including third-team all-conference linemen Gene Frederic, the center, and Jeremy Rone, the right tackle.
DefenseDefensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, in his first year, transformed this unit into one of the nation's best. But with just five starters back, he'll have his work cut out in trying to keep the Tigers ranked in the top 10 in total defense.
The defense's leader will be senior defensive tackle Albert Means, who has trimmed down to the 330-pound range and is among the conference's best at stuffing the run. The coaches auditioned him at defensive end during the spring and were impressed by his quickness.
There will be three new starting linebackers. Junior college transfer Carlton Baker, sophomore Quinton McCrary, junior Tim Goodwell and sophomore Mike Snyder will be in the mix.
In the secondary, the Tigers lost Lee Hayes, the team's top cover corner, who was dismissed after the bowl game. But safety Wesley Smith, who missed the spring with a groin injury, is a first-team all-conference player built in the mold of former Memphis star Jerome Woods.
SpecialistsWest handled the special teams last year, and after a performance review he fired himself. West hired a special teams coach, former Hawaii assistant Tyson Helton, and hopes the change can turn this group's fortunes around.
Junior Stephen Gostkowski, a starting pitcher for the baseball team, gives the Tigers a dependable kicker. He finished as the league's No. 2 kicker (1.46 field goals per game) and was perfect on 44 extra-point attempts. Senior Brandon Roberson is back after averaging 39.5 yards on 50 punts.
Final AnalysisTiger football fans still celebrating last season's first bowl trip in 32 years will find themselves pulling for a team that has a legitimate chance to challenge for the C-USA title. The Tigers are loaded offensively with a veteran quarterback, an All-America candidate at running back, depth at the receiver spot and a solid offensive line that allowed only 12 sacks a year ago. In Williams, the Tigers have the reigning league Offensive Player of the Year and the best running back in the program's history. The key to contending for the C-USA title -- unthinkable two years ago after a 3-9 finish -- may rest on a revamped defense that must replace six starters, including all three linebackers.