The Memphis Tigers are on fire. And the fuel behind it all is head coach Justin Fuente. Ever since stepping foot on campus in the winter of 2011, Memphis has improved each day under Fuente's leadership. After two sub par seasons in 2012 and 2013, the Tigers made great strides in 2014, winning the AAC Championship en route to a 10-3 finish - the Tigers' first 10 win season since 1938. Right now, halfway through the 2015 college football season, the Tigers are trending up with an unblemished record and top-20 national ranking. The work isn't done for Fuente and the Tigers, but is it possible the head coach jumps ship for greater opportunity elsewhere after this season?
To help us understand Fuente and his success as the Tigers head coach, we received some help from fellow SB Nation writer - from Underdog Dynasty - Chris James.
1. After two years of below .500 football as the head coach for Memphis, Fuente and the Tigers took a huge leap in 2014. What was the biggest key to success in earning the AAC Championship for the Tigers in 2014?
CJ: The biggest key to the championship was the team's defense. Paxton Lynch was good, but still developing. As the season progressed he got better by leaps and bounds, but the defense kept Memphis in a lot of games and even won some games. If 2015 Memphis had the 2014 Memphis' defense, then the Tigers would have destroyed their schedule to date. Undefeated currently, I know, but last year's D with this year's O and Memphis wins games 56-10.
2. 2014 saw the Tigers' first 10 win season since 1938. How did Fuente take a middling program to such great heights in just three short years?
CJ: If you look at records, you would see losing seasons, and then an incredible 10-win season. If you are one that looks at the product on the field, then you would see progression each season. Sure, in 2013 Memphis only won three games. But, if you watch the games, you will see a good product that is so close to being over the hump. I think it was reasonable to have expected 6-7 wins in 2014. To have ten was astonishing. Fuente accomplished this by getting the players to buy in to what he was selling, but also by getting his guys (recruits) in.
3. Riding high at 6-0 and ranked number 18th nationally after a milestone win against rival Ole Miss, what's it like to be a Memphis Tigers fan right now? And what kind of expectations do you think the program and everyone around it has for the rest of the season?
CJ: The city is electric for the Tigers right now. You have to understand the city of Memphis. Few things bring us together like sports do. Normally it's basketball, but the same electricity you see with the Grizz and the Tiger basketball team, you are seeing it now with the football team.
I don't get the impression that the fans have really looked ahead on the schedule. Fans really do seem to be enjoying the ride. I've heard talk of a New Year's Six Bowl and even Playoffs. But, for the most part, everyone is just looking forward to the next game. That said, I really don't think anyone has "expectations". There is a buzz of "undefeated" but I think deep down people don't believe that. Not because the Tigers can't do it, but just because if you are a lifelong Tiger fan, you know the feeling of defeat. If Memphis fans looked ahead on the schedule, they would see a daunting task. Temple, Navy, and Houston. Undefeated certainly will not be easy.
4. As a former quarterback, briefly describe the impact Coach Fuente has had on the development of Paxton Lynch.
CJ: Well, this isn't Fuente's first go around with developing quarterback talent. Of course he played QB in college, but he also developed Andy Dalton in to a pro. There was probably some reservation as to how much of Dalton's success was due to Fuente, but I think with Paxton, it is safe to say that Fuente played a key role.
Paxton really benefited from Fuente's trust when Lynch was a freshman. For a group of fans, and local radio hosts, Paxton was not the guy in his freshman year. But, to his credit, Fuente stuck with him and it is paying off now. But outside of Lynch, it seems Fuente and the staff are developing QB's well. Clay Holgorsen, Lynch's backup, has looked pretty good from what I've seen.
5. Fuente is one of a handful of non-power 5 coaches deemed as a hot commodity. Do you expect him to be around in 2016? And how much of that depends on how they finish this year? i.e. a New Year's Six appearance.
CJ: Fuente is hot right now. Barring something insane happening throughout the remainder of the season, Fuente should have his choice of jobs as the season ends. I expect him to be on the short list of every vacancy.
Will he leave is a great question as well. He plays thing so close to the vest that it's hard to tell. He's stated as much as, and I'm paraphrasing, "we'll see once the season is over." He's leaving himself open. On the flip side, he does talk a lot about the sweat equity he has built here. Fuente, not to overstate, built Memphis football. What Cal did to Memphis for basketball (facilities, pay scale, fan perception, national perception, etc) Fuente is doing for football. Less arrogant and loud, but the impact is being felt. To stay on the point of Cal, however, I think fans are preparing themselves for him leaving, but certainly hoping he'll stay.