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1. A tip of the cap
On Wednesday, we discussed a team undergoing a relatively impressive rebuild; two years in, Memphis' Justin Fuente has raised Memphis' F/+ ranking by almost 40 spots, and while the wins haven't come yet (and might not in 2014 because of a tough schedule), the Tigers are undeniably moving in the right direction.
Today, we're going to discuss a team that has one-upped Memphis in the "rapid improvement" department. Two years ago, Curtis Johnson took over a Tulane team that had ranked 114th in 2011 (five spots ahead of Memphis) and hadn't ranked better than 99th in what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the F/+ era (2005-present). Since going 12-0 under Tommy Bowden in 1998, the Green Wave had finished with a winning record just twice; since 2002's Hawaii Bowl win, they had not done so. From 2008-11, Tulane went 11-38.
The program was directionless, and the facilities and recruiting draw were unimpressive. And by the end of Johnson's second season, the Green Wave were fighting it out with Louisiana-Lafayette deep into the New Orleans Bowl.
Tulane lost to finish 2013 with a 7-6 record, but ... 7-6! Tulane! We're probably not talking enough about how impressive Johnson's performance was last year. Thanks almost entirely to the defense, which improved from 102nd in Def. F/+ in 2012 to 29th in 2013, Tulane was salty, fun, and downright decent last fall.
I thought the Green Wave would improve; I didn't see seven wins.
2. It makes sense, really
LSU has finished in the AP top 20 for 11 of the last 13 years, top 10 for seven. Louisiana-Lafayette has won nine games for three straight years after failing to do so for more than three decades; the Ragin' Cajuns are now the three-time defending New Orleans Bowl champions. Louisiana-Monroe has won 14 games in two years and reached its first ever bowl in 2012. Louisiana Tech won 17 games in 2011-12 and spent some time ranked in the AP polls in 2012.
And now Tulane just popped up to reach a bowl for the first time in more than a decade.
Louisiana football is humming right now. And this makes perfect sense; Louisiana is absolutely loaded with football prospects.
So which state takes the crown? Louisiana. [...]
Over the period of study Louisiana produced Division I-FBS recruits at almost two and a half times the national average. It ranked first in both average per capita rake and in median per capita rate, though it didn’t rank first in all years. Alabama is a strong runner up, having ranked first in two years (both 2013 and 2012, so maybe there is a trend starting).
Now, academic standards at Tulane and UL-Monroe have forced those schools to expand outside of the state for some of their recruiting needs, but only so much. All five FBS schools in the state of Louisiana have won at least seven games in one of the last two seasons.
When you take per-capita football products into account, this isn't very surprising. In fact, the surprising part might be that four of these five schools were struggling not too long ago. Good hires make all the difference. And so far, it looks like Curtis Johnson was one hell of a hire.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 4-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 70|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Jackson State||N/A||34-7||W||20.8 - 33.2||L|
|7-Sep||South Alabama||68||39-41||L||27.6 - 30.8||L|
|12-Sep||at Louisiana Tech||112||24-15||W||18.5 - 16.3||W|
|21-Sep||at Syracuse||75||17-52||L||20.7 - 37.5||L|
|28-Sep||at UL-Monroe||109||31-14||W||22.9 - 20.2||W||-5.5|
|5-Oct||North Texas||51||24-21||W||19.6 - 27.6||L||-4.7|
|12-Oct||East Carolina||40||36-33||W||24.9 - 26.0||L||-4.2|
|26-Oct||Tulsa||94||14-7||W||19.0 - 22.5||L||-5.4|
|2-Nov||at Florida Atlantic||73||17-34||L||13.5 - 26.8||L||-4.7|
|9-Nov||at UTSA||67||7-10||L||22.1 - 23.1||L||-5.4|
|23-Nov||UTEP||119||45-3||W||28.5 - 15.2||W||-1.1|
|30-Nov||at Rice||69||13-17||L||2.2 - 14.3||L||-3.3|
|21-Dec||UL-Lafayette||86||21-24||L||31.3 - 16.1||W||0.4|
|Points Per Game||24.8||91||21.4||18|
|Adj. Points Per Game||20.9||113||23.8||27|
3. The defense was decent, then good, then great
Tulane and Memphis in 2013 were the same but different. Both teams featured offenses that never came around and held them back. Both teams rode defense as far as it would take them. But while Memphis' defense was very good at the beginning of the season and eventually gave out after a string of close losses, Tulane's just got better and better.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 29.5, Tulane 21.9 (minus-7.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): Opponent 24.4, Tulane 20.3 (minus-4.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Tulane 20.7, Opponent 15.2 (plus-5.5)
The Green Wave allowed 6.0 yards per play to South Alabama and 5.7 to Syracuse as part of a hit-or-miss September. But after pulling off a strangely offense-friendly 36-33 win over ECU on October 12, the defense would allow more than 4.9 yards per play in a game just one time. (Strangely, UTSA averaged 5.8 per play but scored just 10 points.)
A series of close wins kept Tulane in contention for the Conference USA West title into November, but a series of close losses finished them off. The offense played at even an average level (~28.0 Adj. Points) just twice all year; that usually catches up to you.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.6%||109||Succ. Rt. +||88.9||97|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.4||77||Def. FP+||95.4||103|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.0||83||Redzone S&P+||96.6||76|
|Q1 Rk||110||1st Down Rk||109|
|Q2 Rk||96||2nd Down Rk||112|
|Q3 Rk||103||3rd Down Rk||113|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Nick Montana||6'3, 208||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||158||296||1717||14||10||53.4%||22||6.9%||5.0|
|Devin Powell||6'3, 213||So.||2 stars (5.4)||60||110||681||5||5||54.5%||9||7.6%||5.3|
|Tanner Lee||6'4, 203||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Glen Cuiellette||6'1, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
4. Let's start over
The offense really was bad last year. Tulane was something approaching mediocre -- not good, not terrible -- when it came to converting on passing downs (82nd in Passing Downs Success Rate+) and finishing drives (76th in Redzone S&P+); the Green Wave were something approaching terrible in just about every other possible way.
Nick Montana's completion percentage of 53 percent would have been fine if he was averaging about 16 yards per completion, but he averaged 10.9. Orleans Darkwa was a strong short-yardage runner with almost no explosiveness. Of the seven players targeted by at least 15 passes in 2013, only two averaged better than a miserable 5.6 yards per target, and one (Rob Kelley) is a fullback.
All things considered, the fact that Ryan Grant averaged 8.5 yards per target and racked up 1,039 receiving yards for the season is damn near super-human.
Grant is gone now, as is Darkwa. Without his best long and short threats, offensive coordinator Eric Price appears to be going young. Really young. Redshirt freshmen Tanner Lee (quarterback) and Sherman Badie (running back) finished spring practice atop the depth chart in the backfield (PDF). (Lee technically finished tied with sophomore Devin Powell for the top spot, but hey, his name is listed first.) Meanwhile, three sophomores are starters on the interior of the offensive line; hell, there's a sophomore atop the two-deep at fullback, too (Lazedrick Thompson). If you're going to stink, at least stink with guys who could improve with experience.
Things can't get much worse for the Tulane offense, so now's as good a time as any to ride with youth, especially considering how many three-star recruits Johnson has recently reeled in at the skill positions.
(One youngster who might have played a role but probably won't now: three-star freshman receiver Teddy Veal, who allegedly did something very, very stupid this past weekend.)
|Rob Kelley||FB||5'10, 228||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||98||420||3||4.3||5.0||32.7%|
|Josh Rounds||RB||5'11, 189||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||49||163||0||3.3||2.4||32.7%|
|Nick Montana||QB||6'3, 208||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||23||116||0||5.0||4.1||34.8%|
|Lazedrick Thompson||FB||6'0, 209||So.||3 stars (5.5)||22||68||0||3.1||3.3||22.7%|
|Dante Butler||FB||5'10, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||24||146||0||6.1||7.7||41.6%|
|Devin Powell||QB||6'3, 213||So.||2 stars (5.4)||10||42||0||4.2||2.3||40.0%|
|Marshall Wadleigh||FB||5'11, 195||So.||NR|
|Sherman Badie||RB||5'10, 192||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Dontrell Hilliard||RB||6'0, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Justyn Shackleford||WR-X||5'11, 174||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||82||36||419||43.9%||21.9%||48.6%||5.1||-120||4.5||47.8|
|Xavier Rush||WR-Z||6'2, 203||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||35||17||196||48.6%||9.4%||33.3%||5.6||-44||5.7||22.3|
|Kedrick Banks||WR-Z||5'9, 181||So.||2 stars (5.3)||27||19||118||70.4%||7.2%||38.1%||4.4||-102||4.2||13.5|
|Rob Kelley||FB||5'10, 228||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||26||18||176||69.2%||7.0%||40.0%||6.8||-34||5.6||20.1|
|Sydie London||TE||6'2, 238||Jr.||NR||17||12||58||70.6%||4.5%||62.5%||3.4||-81||3.8||6.6|
|Josh Rounds||RB||5'11, 189||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||15||12||65||80.0%||4.0%||60.0%||4.3||-66||3.5||7.4|
|Devon Breaux||WR-X||5'11, 169||So.||2 stars (5.3)||14||6||101||42.9%||3.7%||66.7%||7.2||10||7.0||11.5|
|Dante Butler||FB||5'10, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||14||7||79||50.0%||3.7%||42.9%||5.6||-19||4.2||9.0|
|Matt Marfisi||TE||6'6, 252||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||5||4||53||80.0%||1.3%||100.0%||10.6||9||5.9||6.0|
|Lazedrick Thompson||RB||6'0, 209||So.||3 stars (5.5)||2||1||31||50.0%||0.5%||100.0%||15.5||17||8.6||3.5|
|Teddy Veal||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Kendall Ardoin||TE||6'6, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Sean Donnelly||RT||6'8, 312||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||23|
|Arturo Uzdavinis||LT||6'6, 295||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||13|
|Nathan Shienle||C||6'5, 317||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12|
|Chris Taylor||RG||6'1, 324||So.||3 stars (5.6)||3|
|Todd Jacquet||LT||6'5, 277||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||2|
|Alex Paul||LG||6'6, 326||So.||2 stars (5.4)||1|
|Nate Skold||RT||6'6, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Colton Hanson||LG||6'5, 318||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Kenneth Santa Marina||LT||6'5, 323||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Brandon Godfrey||C||6'4, 277||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jason Stewart||RG||6'4, 395||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Junior Diaz||C||6'2, 277||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. The good news: the line won't be much worse
Losing three players who combined for 75 career starts -- basically six combined seasons -- is never a good thing. But when they were the starters for a generally poor line, that makes the loss a little easier to take. Tulane's offensive line absolutely improved in 2013, but it was still rather mediocre.
Tulane will start two senior tackles, which certainly won't hurt in terms of pass protection. But the Green Wave aim for balance and will need the young interior linemen to play well. Sophomores Colton Hanson, Nathan Shienle (a 2013 starter), and Chris Taylor are currently listed as first-stringers, and two three-star redshirt freshmen could make noise, too.
Recruiting has been solid here, and the size of this line is rather impressive -- the 12 linemen listed on the post-spring depth chart average 6'5, 311, and that's with two 277-pounders dragging the average down -- but at some point potential has to turn into production.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.7%||10||Succ. Rt. +||110.2||29|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||33.0||13||Off. FP+||105.5||9|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.7||17||Redzone S&P+||120.5||12|
|Q1 Rk||69||1st Down Rk||58|
|Q2 Rk||20||2nd Down Rk||20|
|Q3 Rk||40||3rd Down Rk||74|
6. A mid-major Michigan State
Tulane was basically the mid-major Michigan State, only if Michigan State's offense hadn't improved after September. The Green Wave tried to ride field position and an intensely efficient defense to wins, and it worked to at least a degree. The line was big and strong, and the corners were aggressive, especially on standard downs (sometimes detrimentally so). Tulane dared opponents to beat the defense deep, and while the big plays were quite big, they were also rare.
The more I discuss the importance of efficiency, field position, etc., the more I find my line of thinking shifting when it comes to the importance of big plays. The single most telling stat in the average box score is yards per play, and explosiveness has long been seen (by me and basically everybody else) as the end-all, be-all in football. But efficiency and three-and-outs drive field position, and even a slight advantage in field position can create a huge advantage overall. Tulane sacrificed random big plays for three-and-outs on defense, and it worked. Again, with a terrible offense, Tulane was a small handful of plays away from double-digit wins.
Notice we're talking in the past tense here. Defensive co-coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington have some work to do to replicate last year's success.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tyler Gilbert||DE||6'3, 244||Sr.||NR||13||23.0||3.1%||6.0||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Royce LaFrance||DE||6'3, 244||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||23.0||3.1%||10.0||6.5||0||2||0||1|
|Andre Robinson||DE||6'1, 235||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||16.0||2.2%||5.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Calvin Thomas (2012)||DT||6'3, 286||So.||2 stars (5.2)||12||15.0||2.1%||2.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Kenny Welcome||NT||6'2, 289||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||13.0||1.8%||2.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Aaron Bryant||DE||6'2, 252||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||11.5||1.6%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tanzel Smart||DT||6'2, 331||So.||3 stars (5.5)||12||10.5||1.4%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Corey Redwine||NT||6'0, 316||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||7.0||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Ade Aruna||DE||6'6, 230||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Quinlan Carroll||DE||6'1, 213||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Eric Bell||DT||6'2, 250||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Eldrick Washington||DT||6'1, 240||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Luke Jackson||DE||6'2, 215||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Braynon Edwards||DT||6'2, 350||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Sean Wilson||DE||6'4, 265||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Peter Woullard||DE||6'3, 240||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. Two big gaps in the middle
Tulane was insanely aggressive in 2013, and the Green Wave were able to consistently dominate the middle of the field. Defensive tackle Julius Warmsley was one of the best defensive play-makers in the country, especially against the run. Nose tackle Chris Davenport (a former five-star LSU signee) was an immovable space-eater. Middle linebacker Zach Davis racked up nine tackles for loss, and safeties Sam Scofield and Darion Monroe were dominant, both near to and far from the line of scrimmage.
Three of the five players I just mentioned are gone, and more than anything else, the loss of both Warmsley and Davenport could change the tenor of the defense. Tulane's defensive line will be far less proven in 2014. There are plenty of potential play-makers here -- ends Tyler Gilbert and Royce LaFrance combined for 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, and to be sure, projected starting tackles Tanzel Smart and Corey Redwine (combined: 647 pounds) are beefy. But Redwine was special and Davenport was quite athletic for his size, and they allowed Tulane to put together top-10 rankings in the run-blocking categories above.
There will be regression here.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nico Marley||WLB||5'8, 180||So.||2 stars (5.2)||13||53.0||7.2%||11.0||2.0||1||2||1||0|
|Edward Williams||MLB||6'3, 221||So.||3 stars (5.7)||7||7.0||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Matthew Bailey||WLB||5'11, 203||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||7.0||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||1|
|Eric Thomas||MLB||5'9, 234||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||4.5||0.6%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sergio Medina||LB||6'0, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||3.5||0.5%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Brandon Schmidt||LB||5'8, 226||Sr.||NR||9||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rae Juan Marbley||LB||6'0, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Zachery Harris||LB||6'0, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Robert Kennedy||LB||6'1, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Sam Scofield||SS||6'1, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||13||89.0||12.1%||9.5||1.5||0||8||2||1|
|Darion Monroe||FS||5'10, 189||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||13||73.5||10.0%||9||3.5||1||6||1||0|
|Lorenzo Doss||CB||5'11, 175||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||29.5||4.0%||1.5||0||7||9||0||1|
|Jarrod Franklin||BOSS||5'11, 194||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||19.5||2.7%||1.5||1||1||0||1||0|
|Taurean Nixon||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||9||12.0||1.6%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Richard Allen||CB||5'9, 168||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Parry Nickerson||CB||5'11, 157||So.||2 stars (5.4)||1||6.0||0.8%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Brandon LeBeau||FS||6'0, 201||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||6.0||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Leonard Davis||SS||6'0, 186||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Richard Carthon||S||5'7, 197||Jr.||NR||11||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|William Townsend||CB||6'0, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Tristan Cooper||DB||6'0, 175||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Cry havoc
Regression is less likely in the back. Starting cornerbacks Jordan Batiste (transfer) and Jordan Sullen (graduation) are gone, as is stud BOSS safety Derrick Srozier. But Tulane had six play-making defensive backs last season, and three return. Scofield and Monroe combined for 18.5 tackles for loss and 15 passes defensed -- a rare combination -- last fall, and corner Lorenzo Doss should be ready for an even bigger role. As I always say about guys with pretty high ratios of passes defensed to tackles, they're either phenomenal cover men or terrible tackles. You're not going to find a PDs-to-tackles ratio much higher than Doss' 16-to-29.5 (even if his seven interceptions to nine break-ups were a bit lucky).
Granted, Tulane wants to play five defensive backs as much as possible, and 5 > 3. Still, there's experience here, and quite a few freshmen (now sophomores) got solid playing time last fall: Jarrod Franklin, Richard Allen, pre-injury Parry Nickerson, etc.
If the pass defense regresses, it will probably be because opponents are running more successfully and throwing from more advantageous situations.
|Peter Picerelli||6'1, 190||Jr.||80||41.5||5||22||23||56.3%|
|Devin Boutte||KR||5'8, 170||Sr.||14||19.4||0|
|Dante Butler||KR||5'10, 216||Sr.||7||19.4||0|
|Devin Boutte||PR||5'8, 170||Sr.||23||4.1||0|
|Darion Monroe||PR||5'10, 189||Jr.||6||6.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||56|
|Field Goal Efficiency||38|
|Punt Return Efficiency||73|
|Kick Return Efficiency||75|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||3|
9. Wanted: a new cannon
Special teams was a mixed bag for Tulane last year. Returns were okay, punting was okay, and kickoffs and place-kicking were well above average.
Cairo Santos was automatic inside 40 yards and booted more than three-quarters of his kickoffs for touchbacks. He's the only loss in this unit, but he's a huge one. Once Tulane crossed the opponent's 40-yard line, the Green Wave had a pretty decent chance of ending up with at least three points. That was quite an asset for a points-challenged squad.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|18-Oct||at Central Florida||24|
|22-Nov||at East Carolina||72|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-20.2% (115)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||80|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||11 / 10.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. Downgrade and upgrade
So basically, the run defense will probably regress, the pass defense probably won't, the ace kicker is gone, and it would be pretty difficult for the offense to get any worse (though it might a little in the short-term). Add that up, and Tulane might end up seeing slight regression overall.
After such a breakthrough, there are worse things in the world than a single step backwards, but with the youth movement on offense and two new defensive tackles, Tulane should be happy with any ranking above about 80th or 85th.
The problem is that Tulane might get a little worse while the schedule gets harder. Only four opponents are projected worse than 85th, for instance, and all six road games come against teams projected 72nd or better. A second straight bowl bid will be tough.
Still, last season completely changed the trajectory and outlook of what was for quite a while a directionless program. Tulane is moving back to campus with its sparkly new stadium, Curtis Johnson has been recruiting pretty well, and the future is bright for this program. That's a statement that would seem stunning not very far into the past, even if there's a speed bump in the near future.