(AP) – Long known as a basketball-crazy city, Memphis has a football team to love, too.
The undefeated Tigers jumped into the Top 25 at No. 18 on Sunday, one day after an impressive 37-24 victory over then-No. 13 Mississippi at the Liberty Bowl.
It’s a huge breakthrough for a program that’s often been mediocre on the field and drawn lukewarm support. The ranking is the highest in school history and it’s just the third time the Tigers have been nationally ranked.
Memphis (6-0, 2-0 AAC) has won 13 straight, the third-longest streak in the country. But there was plenty of skepticism about that achievement because of the Tigers’ so-so schedule.
That changed in a big way last Saturday.
Junior quarterback Paxton Lynch led a Memphis offense that was dominant for nearly the entire day. Ole Miss jumped to a 14-0 lead but Lynch helped the Tigers respond with 31 straight points in a stunning rally. He completed 39 of 53 passes for 384 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
It came in front of a crowd that topped 60,000 for the first time in nearly a decade. Players marveled at the atmosphere.
”When I first came here, there were not that many people in the stands and I come out there (Saturday) and there’s not an empty seat out there,” Lynch said.
It’s the latest chapter in a remarkable turnaround for the Tigers under fourth-year coach Justin Fuente. Before the former TCU offensive coordinator arrived, Memphis was one of the worst teams in the country, with a 5-31 record over the previous three seasons.
Suddenly the Tigers can’t be stopped.
Fuente, Lynch and the Tigers had gone mostly unnoticed on the national stage before last Saturday. Now they’re part of an upstart AAC that has two other teams, Houston and Temple, in the Top 25.
”I just told them: `You think there’ve been distractions before? Wait until now,”’ Fuente said. ”I’m going to try and protect them as best I can, to protect the group. But I know those things are going to come and we’ve got to do a great job of handling it.”
The most immediate task for Memphis? Navigating a quick turnaround before a road game against Tulsa (3-3, 0-2) on Friday night.
A huge reason for the Tigers’ dominance is Lynch. The 6-foot-7, 245-pounder has thrown for 1,919 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception. He’s completed nearly 71 percent of his passes.
Lynch said he’s confident Fuente’s leadership will help squash any urge to lose focus.
”We were playing hard whenever there were no distractions, so whenever the distractions are here, we have to put our head down and keep working,” Lynch said.
Said Fuente: ”We talk about getting better and continuing to improve. That’s not just a one-week thing. We’ll have another challenge next week to continue to get better.”
That opportunity certainly exists against Tulsa, which is coming off a 30-17 road loss to East Carolina and is allowing 525.0 yards per game, among the most in the nation. The Golden Hurricane managed to hold ECU to 382 while they gained 463, but the Pirates built a 20-0 halftime lead.
Tulsa had taken four in a row over Memphis before the Tigers won 40-20 at home Oct. 31. Lynch was 18 of 31 for 183 yards and ran for 47 more and a touchdown on six attempts.
The teams’ last two meetings in Tulsa – both Golden Hurricane wins – went to overtime.