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1. A higher baseline
In 2014, Tulane scored 8.8 fewer points per game than it did the year before and allowed a touchdown more. The Green Wave's full-season scoring margin went from plus-44 points to minus-149, and their performance in close games regressed -- they went 3-4 in one-possession games in 2013 and 1-3 in 2014. A great defense became good, and a bad offense got worse.
Oh, by the way, this was Tulane's second-best team of the last decade. The F/+ ratings go back to 2005; from 2005-12, Tulane never ranked better than 101st. The Green Wave surged to 65th in 2013 and last fall fell to 93rd.
It's all about expectations, isn't it? Near the end of the Chris Scelfo era and throughout Bob Toledo's five-year tenure, there were none. The Green Wave had no identity, minimal skill, and a cavernous stadium. Now, they've got high defensive standards, a pretty on-campus venue, and bowl hopes. That last year's 3-9 season was disappointing, after Tulane had averaged 2.6 wins per year between 2008-12, was a sign of progress.
That's the thing about higher bars: you still have to clear them.
Johnson is an intriguing hire. When you are a mid-major, your options are to hire an up-and-comer and hope he stays long enough to win, or hire a coach who failed at a major-conference level and is on his way down.
Johnson is an odd combination of experienced and up-and-coming. At 50 years old, the New Orleans native racked up 18 years of assistant experience -- he recruited Marshall Faulk to San Diego State, Ed Reed to Miami -- and spent the last six years as Sean Payton's receivers coach. He has been a receivers coach for 25 years, but he is a New Orleans guy. There is nothing on his resume to suggest he can turn underachievers into overachievers, but … there is nothing to suggest he cannot.
His staff is a combination of old hands and charismatic youngsters, and if he can bring former three-star recruits out of their shell and bring in new ones, Tulane could have a much higher ceiling.
While recruiting rankings haven't been kind to the Green Wave within their conference, Johnson has hammered the local channels. In his four classes, he has signed 24 players from New Orleans, 33 from elsewhere in Louisiana, and only 17 from out of state. Perhaps as a result*, Tulane has a roster that has suffered minimal turnover and is developing depth it has rarely had.
So now Tulane just has to win again. The Green Wave have won 10 games in two years -- the most for a two-year span since they won 13 games in 2002-03 -- but regressing by four wins from one year to another is never a good thing. The Tulane defense should again be sound, but it almost isn't an exaggeration to say that the Green Wave haven't had a good offense since Shaun King was quarterback.
Tulane isn't a good program yet. But if it's ever going to get there, it's going to be by following the steps Johnson has followed.
* If strong local recruiting doesn't have a direct correlation to turnover, it at least doesn't hurt your attrition levels.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 93|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|18-Oct||at Central Florida||60||13-20||L||44%||-3.6||15%|
|22-Nov||at East Carolina||61||6-34||L||7%||-34.2||0%|
|Points Per Game||16.0||124||28.4||81|
2. Up, down, staying the same
In my recent Tulsa preview, we discussed a team with a small range between its best and worst performances. Tulane was a bit more unpredictable. Tulane ended up grading out better despite a season-opening road loss to the Golden Hurricane, mainly because the high points were higher.
- Average Percentile Performance (4 best games): Tulane 70%, Tulsa 40%
- Average Percentile Performance (4 worst games): Tulane 13%, Tulsa 6%
The floors were similar; the ceilings were not.
What's funny about Tulane's in-season progression was that, no matter how high or low they strayed, their averages returned to normal.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 36% (record: 1-3)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 4 games): 37% (record: 1-3)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 35% (record: 1-3)
I don't know if that's encouraging. But I do know that the personality of the squad didn't change much -- the defense was usually doing what it could (the Green Wave allowed 5.3 or fewer yards per play six times), and the offense was usually holding it back (they averaged 5.1 yards per play or fewer nine times).
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.5%||119||Succ. Rt. +||83.0||120|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||33.2||120||Def. FP+||97.0||101|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||2.9||128||Redzone S&P+||81.0||121|
|Q1 Rk||107||1st Down Rk||106|
|Q2 Rk||111||2nd Down Rk||113|
|Q3 Rk||111||3rd Down Rk||73|
3. Fixing an unfixable offense
The last time Tulane averaged even 25 points per game, J.P. Losman was the quarterback. Losman is 34 years old.
In 10 years of S&P+ data, the Green Wave have never ranked better than 83rd in Off. S&P+, and even while going in 7-6 in 2013, they did so despite the offense (112th), not because of it.
This much failure in an era of fireworks has to be looked at as a systemic issue, not a tactical one. But if you look at recruiting rankings, you don't see a huge difference between the offensive personnel that struggled and the defensive personnel that more than held its own.
So what has caused this? And what can third-year coordinator Eric Price do to turn the tide?
At least in 2014, one of the primary reasons for struggle was youth. You see that in the returning personnel. The leading returning passer and rusher and the SEVEN leading returning receivers are all sophomores. And while running back Sherman Badie was a revelation, the quarterback (Tanner Lee) and his receivers ... well ... played like freshmen. (And the only big-play threat in the receiving corps, Xavier Rush, missed five games with injury.) In theory, if you keep this unit together, there might be enough athleticism to thrive when chemistry gets up to speed.
But in theory, a Tulane offense shouldn't stink for 12 consecutive seasons. Theory and reality haven't seen eye to eye. They rarely do in New Orleans.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tanner Lee||6'4, 220||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7986||185||336||1962||12||14||55.1%||22||6.1%||5.0|
|Devin Powell||6'3, 228||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||10||26||111||0||0||38.5%||2||7.1%||3.3|
|Glen Cuiellette||6'1, 205||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8008|
|Sherman Badie||RB||6'0, 195||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8253||121||688||3||5.7||9.1||33.9%||1||1|
|Lazedrick Thompson||RB||6'1, 217||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8050||109||533||4||4.9||4.1||41.3%||0||0|
|Dontrell Hilliard||RB||6'0, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059||97||452||3||4.7||4.9||36.1%||2||2|
|Josh Rounds (2013)||RB||5'11, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752||49||163||0||3.3||2.4||32.7%||NR||NR|
|Tanner Lee||QB||6'4, 220||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7986||14||41||0||2.9||3.9||35.7%||1||1|
|Nigel Anderson||RB||5'10, 187||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8463|
4. Big-play Badie
A 34 percent opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) isn't very good. Of the 134 FBS running backs who had at least 120 carries, Sherman Badie's opportunity rate ranked 100th. But when you take into account the fact that Badie was a freshman running behind a line filled with sophomores, you come to the conclusion that Badie could be a special player.
Even with limited open-field opportunities, Badie managed to average 5.7 yards per carry. Granted, those opportunities dried up as opponents loaded the box and Badie hit a freshman wall -- first six games: 7.2 yards per carry; next six games: 3.3 -- but his potential was unmistakable. And his inefficiency was balanced a bit by Lazedrick Thompson and Dontrell Hilliard, who were more efficient and less explosive. Combined with the return of junior Josh Rounds and the addition of mid-three-star freshman Nigel Anderson, Tulane has more than enough high-caliber running back. But Price wants balance in his offense, and Tulane had none.
For the running game to thrive, the passing game has to at least suffice. With so many sophomores, you could talk yourself into this group doing impressive things in 2016 or 2017, but improvement in 2015 could be only marginal.
Teddy Veal was heavily targeted as a well-touted freshman, but his punt-returner skill set led to more dancing than yards, and his per-target average of 4.8 yards was the fifth-worst in the country for a No. 1 target. The median average for a No. 1 target was 8.3, almost double Veal's average.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Teddy Veal||WR-Z||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8285||80||40||381||50.0%||19.3%||40.0%||4.8||-129||4.7||36.0|
|Dontrell Hilliard||RB||6'0, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059||36||30||244||83.3%||8.7%||47.2%||6.8||-103||7.0||23.1|
|Sherman Badie||RB||6'0, 195||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8253||33||24||108||72.7%||8.0%||57.6%||3.3||-176||3.3||10.2|
|Terren Encalade||WR-X||6'0, 185||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719||30||20||235||66.7%||7.2%||70.0%||7.8||-5||7.8||22.2|
|Charles Jones||TE||6'3, 235||So.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||27||21||192||77.8%||6.5%||63.0%||7.1||-53||7.0||18.1|
|Leondre James||WR-Z||6'0, 175||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8019||27||15||169||55.6%||6.5%||63.0%||6.3||-18||5.9||16.0|
|Trey Scott||TE||6'2, 205||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7594||22||9||76||40.9%||5.3%||45.5%||3.5||-45||3.7||7.2|
|Devon Breaux||WR-X||6'0, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8493||21||8||70||38.1%||5.1%||28.6%||3.3||-39||3.8||6.6|
|Lazedrick Thompson||RB||6'1, 217||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8050||2||1||4||50.0%||0.5%||100.0%||2.0||-9||NR||0.4|
|Larry Dace||WR-Z||5'9, 175||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Kendall Ardoin||TE||6'6, 215||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7959|
|Darius Williams||WR||6'2, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8059|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Arturo Uzdavinis||LT||6'7, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7798||25|
|Nathan Shienle||C||6'5, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||24|
|Chris Taylor||RG||6'2, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8416||15|
|Colton Hanson||LG||6'5, 315||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||12|
|Todd Jacquet||RG||6'5, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8025||2|
|Alex Paul||LG||6'6, 320||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993||1|
|Brandon Godfrey||LG||6'4, 295||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7867||0|
|Jason Stewart||RG||6'4, 355||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7901||0|
|Kenneth Santa Marina||RT||6'6, 305||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8650||0|
|Junior Diaz||C||6'1, 276||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8251|
|John Leglue||LT||6'6, 280||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR|
|Devon Johnson||RT||6'5, 330||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8159|
|Leeward Brown||OL||6'3, 344||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8535|
|Keeyon Smart||OL||6'4, 332||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8174|
5. Quite a few three-stars up front
Tackle Sean Donnelly was in his third year as a starter, but of the six other players who finished 2014 with starting experience, five were sophomores, and one was a junior.
All six of those players are now upperclassmen, and combined with contributions from up to six other linemen who were once three-star recruits, this line appears to have experience and potential. The sack rates were good (in part because Tanner Lee was throwing a lot of quick passes to Veal and others), and the line stats could have been worse considering the youth.
The offensive line and the running backs could combine to become quite formidable ... as long as defenses have to mind the passing game at least a little bit.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||41.7%||71||Succ. Rt. +||98.7||73|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.2||121||Off. FP+||95.0||119|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.6||10||Redzone S&P+||109.7||31|
|Q1 Rk||82||1st Down Rk||93|
|Q2 Rk||45||2nd Down Rk||53|
|Q3 Rk||62||3rd Down Rk||78|
6. The offense only needs to be competent
The Tulane defensive line was spectacular in 2013; the Green Wave ranked eighth in Adj. Line Yards, first in both Power Success Rate and Stuff Rate, and seventh in Adj. Sack Rate. They had to replace two monstrous tackles in Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport, so regression was inevitable.
But the line was still solid, and an experienced secondary was able to knock out big plays enough for Tulane to play high-quality bend-don't-break defense and snuff out scoring opportunities.
Six of last year's top seven linemen and six of seven linebackers return, which should allow Tulane to account for turnover in the secondary. Tulane fell from 18th to 55th in Def. S&P+ in 2014, but 55th is still good for an AAC team, and I wouldn't expect much, if any, regression. That could mean good things for the Green Wave if the offense is not awful.
Of course, you could rephrase that: That could mean good things for the Green Wave if the offense is not [what it has been for most of 12 years].
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tanzel Smart||DT||6'1, 303||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8067||12||34.0||5.4%||6.5||2.0||0||1||1||0|
|Royce LaFrance||DE||6'4, 265||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||12||26.0||4.1%||10.5||6.0||0||2||2||1|
|Sean Wilson||DT||6'4, 265||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||12||22.5||3.5%||2.5||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Corey Redwine||DT||6'1, 305||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||12||12.5||2.0%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Daren Williams||DE||6'4, 235||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7933||9||7.0||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ade Aruna||DE||6'5, 247||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8093||8||6.5||1.0%||1.0||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Eldrick Washington||DT||6'1, 265||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8085||9||2.0||0.3%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Calvin Thomas||DT||6'4, 275||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7500|
|Quinlan Carroll||DE||6'1, 220||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7876|
|Eric Bell||DT||6'2, 255||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7960|
|Luke Jackson||DE||6'2, 230||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7863|
|Braynon Edwards||DT||6'2, 350||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7693|
|Peter Woullard||DE||6'3, 240||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7693|
|Robert Kennedy||DE||6'1, 230||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7693|
|John Washington||DT||6'1, 302||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8488|
7. Merely a minor drop-off
The pass rush dropped off, and it was easier to get to the second level of Tulane's defense, but the Green Wave still made plenty of plays. They fell only to seventh in Power Success Rate, seventh in Stuff Rate, and 34th in Adj. Line Yards, and now they return every linemen but one: Tyler Gilbert.
Gilbert was a strong run defender, and he could be missed, but it's hard to worry about the run defense with the return of tackles Tanzel Smart and Corey Redwine, end Royce LaFrance, and each of the top three linebackers, including Nico Marley (13 non-sack tackles for loss).
(Redwine briefly elected to forego his senior season last December, then returned as a graduate student. LaFrance sat out spring for academic reasons. Both are expected to be eligible this fall.)
The pass rush could still be an issue; assuming LaFrance returns in good standing, Tulane will return its sacks leader, but in playing a conservative 4-2-5 defense with minimal blitzing (linebackers combined for just 2 sacks), Tulane asked a lot of its line. That paid off in run defense, but a younger secondary might be asked to cover for quite a while if Tulane doesn't get more pressure from its front four on passing downs.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nico Marley||WLB||5'9, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7855||12||64.0||10.1%||13.5||0.5||1||3||1||0|
|Edward Williams||MLB||6'3, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8395||10||30.5||4.8%||4.5||0.5||1||1||0||0|
|Eric Thomas||MLB||5'10, 227||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||12||24.5||3.9%||6.0||1.0||0||2||1||0|
|Rae Juan Marbley||LB||6'0, 215||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8406||12||8.5||1.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|William Townsend||WLB||6'0, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||9||8.0||1.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Zachery Harris||MLB||6'0, 220||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8026||5||5.5||0.9%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Darion Monroe||FS||5'11, 197||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8865||12||62.0||9.8%||5||1||2||1||2||1|
|Parry Nickerson||CB||5'11, 179||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7959||12||45.5||7.2%||2.5||0||6||6||0||1|
|Jarrod Franklin (2013)||NB||5'11, 196||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||13||19.5||2.7%||1.5||1||1||0||1||0|
|Leonard Davis||SS||6'0, 198||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7919||12||13.0||2.0%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Richard Carthon||S||5'7, 197||Sr.||NR||NR||12||5.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Richard Allen||CB||5'9, 178||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7920||7||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rene Fleury||NB||6'1, 210||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7685||10||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Tristan Cooper||FS||5'11, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859||9||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Stephon Lofton||CB||5'11, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652|
|Carlton Williams||SS||6'0, 190||RSFr.||NR||NR|
|Donnie Lewis||CB||5'11, 170||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR|
|Malik Eugene||S||5'8, 162||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8033|
|Darius Black||S||5'10, 166||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7989|
8. A lot to replace in the back
In safety Darion Monroe and corner Parry Nickerson, Tulane returns two starting defensive backs who combined for 7.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, and seven break-ups. In safeties Sam Scofield, Brandon LeBeau and Taurean Nixon and corner Lorenzo Doss, Tulane must replace four DBs who combined for 14.5 TFLs, seven picks, and 19 break-ups.
The Green Wave return a lot and replace a lot; getting Jarrod Franklin back from injury will help, but the pass defense is going to rely on players with minimal experience, be they 2014 backups like safety Leonard Davis or rotation newcomers like redshirt freshman Stephon Lofton or 247 three-star freshman Malik Eugene.
Tulane's run defense will be perfectly fine, but there are reasons to doubt the pass defense.
|Peter Picerelli||6'1, 190||Sr.||71||37.8||3||22||18||56.3%|
|Trevor Simms||6'3, 195||Sr.||34||62.1||15||5||44.1%|
|Peter Picerelli||6'1, 190||Sr.||5||55.4||1||0||20.0%|
|Andrew DiRocco||6'1, 180||So.||22-24||6-11||54.5%||2-4||50.0%|
|Trevor Simms||6'3, 195||Sr.||0-0||0-0||N/A||0-1||0.0%|
|Dontrell Hilliard||KR||6'0, 185||So.||17||15.3||0|
|Leondre James||KR||6'0, 175||So.||12||18.1||0|
|Teddy Veal||PR||5'11, 185||So.||9||4.6||0|
|Special Teams F/+||126|
|Field Goal Efficiency||123|
|Punt Return Efficiency||123|
|Kick Return Efficiency||126|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||20|
In a few previews each year, I note that a team's punter might have been its best offensive player, creating a field position edge that offensive efficiency could not. Special teams provide you an opportunity to make up ground that your primary units lost.
Tulane's only made things worse. Kickoffs were mediocre, place-kicking was abysmal (two missed PATs, five missed sub-40 FGs), returns were nonexistent, and despite a decent fair catch rate, punt coverage was awful.
The sophomore return men seem to have some potential, and at the least, place-kicker Andrew DiRocco was a freshman. But there was almost nothing redeeming, and it almost certainly played a role in Tulane going 1-3 in one-possession games.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|12-Sep||at Georgia Tech||8|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-29.3% (115)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||81 / 78|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / -0.1|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+1.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (8, 7)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||3.5 (-0.5)|
10. Hold on, then win late
Tulane fell from 65th to 93rd in the F/+ rankings, but with increased experience in every unit but the secondary, you can talk yourself into the Green Wave improving back into the 80s or, with a few good breaks, the 70s. With five opponents who ranked 117th or worse and three home opponents who ranked 51st or worse, it isn't hard to carve a path back to bowl eligibility. But getting to 6-6 or better will require early survival.
Four of the five worst opponents don't show until after November 1, and a tricky road slate will all but ensure Tulane has a losing record heading into the final month. If this still-young team can keep its nerve, the Green Wave could craft a late-season streak and go bowling again.
It speaks to expectations that I'm saying this about a team that finished 3-9 and 93rd last year, but it does seem like Curtis Johnson is doing good things. His last two teams have been Tulane's best in the last decade, and he will be playing so many sophomores and juniors that, on paper, the Green Wave could play at a high level in 2016. This fall is a bit of a mystery, and while this team has upside, the bar should probably still be set at five or six wins and a ranking in the 80s.