That old saw about Ole Miss football burning up the 80-some-odd-mile drive from Oxford to Memphis in under 45 minutes is instructive for the Rebs' trip to the Liberty Bowl this year: get in fast, get the hell out even quicker, and always under heavy state-trooper escort.
Much has changed in the six years since Ole Miss' last blast in the paleolithic Liberty Bowl. For one, Houston Nutt now spends his fall Saturdays inveighing against competent football execution from the cozy confines of CBS Sports' network studio.
There's also the fact that Memphis has developed into a damn good football team. Two years removed from a 3-9 record, the 5-0 Tigers (2-0 AAC) are riding a 12-game win streak, are ranked No. 22 in the Coaches Poll and have not-so-far-fetched dreams of a New Years Six Bowl. Though the 5-1 Rebels are favored by 10.5 in the latest Vegas odds, Memphis is a hot upset pick among the major media outlets.
So what got the Tigers to the point that experts are picking them to beat a top-15 SEC team?
A new coach
The Tigers, to be sure, view this game as a proving ground for their 2015 aspirations. Last year -- Justin Fuente's third at Memphis -- saw the Tigers win the AAC and go on to beat BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl, 55-48. The Tigers' 10-3 (7-1 AAC) record in 2014 inverted an abysmal 3-9 (1-7 AAC) showing from the previous year, due in no small measure to Justin Fuente, offensive genius.
Fuente's rise through the college coaching ranks has traced a hyperbolic trajectory: having played quarterback himself, he impressed as the position coach at Murray State from 2001 to 2006, then he joined TCU as quarterbacks coach and developed Andy Dalton into a NFL prospect before taking HC duties at Memphis in 2011. In looking at Fuente's pedigree, his models and mentors, his style and education, he professes a dyed-in-the-wool brand of football that only plains states track meets can provide. TCU will never be known to defend you to death, but you're gonna have to score a helluva lot of points to beat them, and Fuente has borne this standard into the 901.
Fuente's Tigers are averaging 47.8 points per game this year, which ranks them fourth in FBS (the Rebs are averaging 46.8 points per game for fifth in the country). Conversely, Memphis is giving up 26.8 points per game, which ranks them 72nd. On the whole, their offensive footprint is much more impressive than their defensive, and notably they rank second in drive finishing.
A really good quarterback
If Fuente's scheme, philosophy, and grindhouse demeanor have turned the Memphis ship around in three years, credit goes also to quarterback Paxton Lynch for executing coach's strategy masterfully under fire. Lynch is long, tall and athletic. A 6'-7'' redshirt junior, dude is completing 70.5 percent of his passes for 1,535 total yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Football Study Hall's Bill C. notes that Lynch is carrying the fourth-best passing success rate in FBS at 52.7 percent. Against Cincinnati -- the Tigers' biggest matchup so far this year -- Lynch went off for 24-36 completions on 412 yards and two touchdowns. He finished last year with 3,031 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions, so his accuracy to this point seems to have improved. In fact, four of his receivers have a catch rate of over 75 percent, and two of his favorite targets, Mose Frazier and Anthony Miller are averaging 10 and 16 yards-per-catch respectively.
So: new people, new system, new ethos and direction. Memphis' defense is still leakier than Pat Haden's office, but the Tigers do know how to score. And this game is always a very, very strange affair. Still, should Justin Fuente keep up such structural improvements with the Tigers, he may well be looking at a number of new job offers in the near future, and then he'll be out of Hugh Freeze's recruiting backyard.