Mike Norvell may have departed for Florida State, but he left plenty to be excited about at Memphis as the Tigers return a prolific group of offensive playmakers and most of their defensive starters for first-time coach Ryan Silverfield. There was plenty of outside interest in the Memphis job, but Silverfield got the nod after spending four seasons on staff, most recently as offensive line coach and deputy head coach.

The in-house promotion was a popular decision among current players, former players and fans yearning to see the continuation of the program's greatest era. By promoting Silverfield, the Tigers kept a loaded roster and 2020 recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the AAC intact.

With an indoor practice facility on the way up, Memphis is poised to prove its rise to power among Group of Five schools can withstand Norvell's departure just as it withstood former coach Justin Fuente leaving for Virginia Tech after the 2015 season.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 17 | Achievements: AAC champions, Lost 53-39 vs. Penn State in Cotton Bowl

Memphis won a school-record 12 games before losing a competitive Cotton Bowl game to Penn State after Norvell's departure. As remarkable as the season played out, some fans will argue it should have been even better. If not for a controversial ruling on a late-game call in the team's loss at Temple, this Memphis team likely would have been 13-0 entering bowl season.

Key departures

Coach Mike Norvell: After coaching the Tigers to a 38-15 record in four seasons and attracting interest from several high-major schools, Norvell left before the team's bowl game to take over at Florida State.

WR Antonio Gibson: The former junior college transfer proved to be a multi-dimensional threat in his senior season as he finished with 735 yards receiving, 369 yards rushing and 13 total touchdowns, including a kickoff return for a score. The Redskins picked him in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

DB Chris Claybrooks: The Jaguars took Claybrooks in the seventh round after the former JUCO cornerback helped anchor the Tigers secondary. He also averaged 30.7 yards on kick returns last season and ran one back for a touchdown.

C Dustin Woodard: Woodard switched from guard to center as a senior and finished his career with 52 consecutive starts. The Patriots selected him in the seventh round.

Who's back?

QB Brady White: You'll have to call him Dr. White by the time he leaves Memphis. The sixth-year senior was already working toward his doctorate degree last season and is coming back for more after passing for 4,014 yards last year. He is the only returning 4,000-yard passer in the country and will have plenty to work with as he seeks to shatter several school records in his third season with the program.

RB Kenneth Gainwell: The shifty redshirt sophomore emerged after an injury to starter Patrick Taylor Jr. last season and quickly become one of the most-dynamic playmakers in the country. He finished with more than 2,000 combined yards and figures to be on all sorts of awards watch lists in his second season as the featured back.

WR Damonte Coxie: If the senior playmaker notches his third straight 70-catch season, he'll surpass Anthony Miller as the school leader in career receptions.

DE Joe Dorceus: The former walk-on defensive end is back to anchor the Memphis front after finishing second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks last season. He's also been known to tote the rock on offense out of a jumbo set.

Fresh faces

WR Kundarrius Taylor: The Memphis native originally committed to Oklahoma out of high school before spending two seasons at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. He will have two seasons to play and should be an immediate contributor to a receiving corps losing two starters.

RB Asa Martin: The former four-star prospect appeared in five games for Auburn in 2018 before transferring to Miami. But after a few months there, he opted to look for another home. Now he's at Memphis with three seasons of eligibility and should pair nicely with Gainwell to give Memphis one of the best running back combinations in the AAC.

Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre: The former Colorado coach helped turn the Ole Miss defense around last season in his lone year as defensive coordinator there. But after the Rebels' head coaching change, he landed less than 100 miles north at Memphis, where his experience will be a welcome addition to Silverfield's staff. 

Critical games

Sept. 12 at Purdue: Playing a power conference school early should offer a gauge of whether Memphis will be great again or merely good. When Memphis won 10 games in 2017, it set the tone for the season with a nonconference win over UCLA in its second game. When the Tigers won 12 games last year, they started out with a victory Ole Miss. But in 2018, they lost at Missouri and finished 8-6.

Oct. 16 vs. UCF: After losing to UCF in the regular season and the AAC title game in both 2017 and 2018, Memphis did not play the Golden Knights at all last season. Now this cross-division nemesis is back on the schedule in what should be the Tigers' marquee home game.

Oct. 31 at Cincinnati: The Bearcats will be seeking revenge after losing to Memphis in back-to-back weeks last season as the Tigers denied them an AAC crown and prestigious bowl bid.

Nov. 14 at Navy: The Midshipmen and their triple option attack are always tricky. But if Memphis can survive this one, the Tigers have a great shot at a 4-0 November.

2020 outlook

Barring a string of catastrophic injuries, the floor likely remains at the eight-win threshold that the Tigers have met or surpassed in six consecutive seasons. With so much talent returning, the window is open for Memphis to be the country's top Group of Five team again. That outcome is not a given, though, as the AAC continues to stand above its peers in depth and prestige. Five teams from the league finished with 10 or more wins last season, and the Tigers play each of the other four this season with three of those games coming on the road.

But the returning group of White, Gainwell and Coxie will be the best QB-RB-WR trio in the conference and arguably one of the best in the country. The Tigers special teams appears to be in good shape, too, with kicker Riley Patterson back for his senior season after hitting 23 of 25 attempts in 2019.

The ultimate determination of this team's fate may lie with how much the defense improves. Penn State hung 53 points on Memphis in the bowl game, and the Tigers also allowed SMU and Tulsa to surpass 40 points last season. The offense figures to be elite again. If the defense can make strides, this team's ceiling is even higher than it was a season ago with Norvell on the sideline.