MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The Memphis Tigers are so optimistic that it's time to end a six-year losing skid they've built a marketing campaign focusing on "Wait 'Til This Year."
"I think we'll have a winning record this year," senior wide receiver Keiwone Malone said.
The Tigers' last winning season was back in 2007, and they are coming off a 3-9 record. But this is their third season with Justin Fuente as coach and their second season in the American Athletic Conference. They've toughened up the nonconference schedule with road games at UCLA and Mississippi.
"It is certainly a leap forward for a program at our stage right now," coach Justin Fuente said of the schedule, "and one we're going to welcome."
The Tigers went 3-9 last season, which included a 24-17 loss on the road at No. 21 Louisville. Fuente thinks his defense has improved over last year when they ranked 39th in total defense allowing 370.7 yards per game and 44th in scoring defense giving up 24.6 points a game.
Offensively, the Tigers hope their offense has matured from last season. They need sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch to mesh with a corps of returning receivers after they struggled to connect last season.
"He's more comfortable this year," Malone said. "He's ready to take over the offense. . At the beginning of (last) year, we had a lot of drops, and that probably played a big part in Paxton's confidence in throwing us the ball."
Running back Brandon Hayes said he sees Lynch taking control of the huddle and leading the offense. He sees a quarterback now acting like a senior in the huddle, something they didn't see much of last season.
Here are five things to watch at Memphis:
FOR THE DEFENSE: Senior defensive end Martin Ifedi, on a handful of preseason watch lists for awards, needs only one sack to tie the school's record for career sacks. Tremont Lawless had 22 sacks from 1996-1999. Ifedi had 11.5 sacks last season in 12 games, ranking him seventh nationally.
AT THE HELM: Lynch should be more comfortable in the role as the starter entering this season. Last season, Lynch became the first freshman in 27 years to start the season as the Tigers quarterback replacing popular senior Jacob Karam, who had received accolades for his volunteer work at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Karam's gone, and teammates say they see a more confident Lynch.
SIXTH-YEAR MAN: Hayes, who led the Tigers in rushing each of the last two seasons, returns for his sixth season. The NCAA granted Hayes a waiver based on the number of games he missed early in his career due to several injuries.
MR. VERSATILITY: Although sophomore Sam Craft started the final 10 games last season at wide receiver, he's now simply listed as an athlete. He was second in receiving with 31 catches for 337 yards. He rushed for 102 yards on 25 carries and tied for the team-high with five touchdowns rushing. And no one should be surprised if he throws too. A quarterback in high school, Craft completed 116 of 234 passes for 1,798 yards and 14 touchdowns his senior year.
PUNTER FROM DOWN UNDER: Fuente must replace punter Tom Hornsey, a four-year starter from Australia who signed with the Dallas Cowboys recently. A possible replacement is freshman Nick Jacobs, also from Australia. Fuente didn't want to pressure Jacobs to match Hornsey's career. "To compare them just because they are from the same country is a stretch," Fuente said.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org/