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Tulane is moving closer to its breakthrough year

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Willie Fritz doesn’t typically need long to get a program rolling, but his Green Wave defense might still hold him back in 2018.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It is pointless to try to reason with There Are Too Many Bowls Guy.

Each year in December, a sports radio host, columnist, or whatever takes the time to scoff at the number of 6-6 teams in bowls, the ridiculous bowl sponsorships, or some other (admittedly silly) aspect of college football’s postseason, and either proposes getting rid of them altogether (usually with some sort of NFL-style playoff expansion) or hearkens a return to the day when men were men and there were only about 15 bowls. They rage against bonus football. They try to remove the modest goals of rising programs.

I’m going to assume there weren’t tons of Too Many Bowls folks around Tulane last year. Since that amazing, out-of-nowhere run to 12-0 and a top-10 finish in 1998 — 20 years ago this fall — the Green Wave have bowled twice and finished above .500 three times.

About once a decade, the program appears to be on the cusp, only to fizzle.

  • Following Tommy Bowden’s departure after 1998, Chris Scelfo took over and rode J.P. Losman’s arm to eight wins in 2002, only to go 5-7 in Losman’s senior season and 5-6 the year after that. They averaged about three wins per season for the next eight years.
  • After a 2-10 debut, Curtis Johnson rode a defense-heavy identity to seven wins and a New Orleans Bowl bid in 2013. Johnson was recruiting well, Tulane moved to the AAC and got the go-ahead to move forward on a new stadium, the future was bright ... and Tulane went 6-18 in 2014-15.

Tulane brought in program whisperer Willie Fritz in 2016. And the guy who brought an MIAA title to Central Missouri (its first in 15 years), resurrected Sam Houston State (back-to-back FCS title game appearances), and oversaw Georgia Southern’s successful FBS transition (17-7 in its first two years) began laying the groundwork.

Tulane went from 3-9 to 4-8 in 2016 and appeared ready to reach bowl eligibility before coming up almost literally an inch short at SMU. Instead they settled for another one-win improvement.

It was a dramatic season at Yulman Stadium. Seven of the Green Wave’s 12 games were decided by one possession. They beat Army by four and Houston by three at home and survived a late-year challenge at ECU. They also lost by two at Navy, by six at home to USF, and, perhaps most damning, by one at home to Cincinnati.

The Wave offense ignited, improving from 121st to 47th in Off. S&P+ and providing the type of sexy explosiveness that has long made Fritz an SB Nation favorite. But the defense that had finished in the Def. S&P+ top 50 three times in four years fell apart. Tulane allowed 17 or fewer points on four occasions but allowed 41-plus on three; they had an exciting secondary, but opponents didn’t have to pass.

That creates an interesting 2018. The offense returns a bounty — quarterback Jonathan Banks, running back Darius Bradwell, and most of its receivers and linemen — but the shaky run front replaces four of last year’s top five linemen and its leading linebacker.

Everything about last year’s team, good and bad, could be magnified, from the fun offense to the iffy defense to the close games — S&P+ projects six games with single-digit margins. Improving by one game and reaching a bowl isn’t going to be easy. But Fritz’s career has been defined by steady improvement and accomplishing hard things.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
Willie Fritz and Braynon Edwards
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Despite Fritz’s reputation and a bit of explosive talent, Tulane wasn’t all that good at running in 2017. The Wave improved only from 112th to 90th in rushing success rate and actually suffered a few more negative plays — their stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) went from 18.1 percent (55th in FBS) to 19.2 (59th).

But their big plays were much, much bigger. They were 19th in Rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays) and made 6.4 rushes of 10-plus yards per game (27th). And while backs Dontrell Hilliard and Sherman Badie have graduated, Bradwell, a 235-pound junior, returns. He wasn’t quite as explosive as the other two, but he was easily the most efficient. He finished with an average of 6.2 yards per carry and could take on a pretty heavy load in 2018.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Oklahoma
Darius Bradwell
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Hilliard and Badie means Tulane’s second-leading returner is sophomore Stephon Huderson, who rushed for all of 70 yards last year. Two three-star freshmen — Amare Jones and Ygenio Booker — could see early action, but the player to watch is junior Corey Dauphine, a Texas Tech transfer and former four-star prospect. He looked good this spring.

The line should be back-friendly as well: those responsible for 48 of last year’s 60 starts return, including two-year starting tackle John Leglue.

Fritz now has a quarterback who is both a) a Fritz guy and b) experienced. JUCO transfer Jonathan Banks ended up the starter last year, passing both of 2016’s primary QBs — Johnathan Brantley and Glen Cuielette, who have both since transferred.

After an up-and-down start to the season (he was almost perfect in big wins over Grambling and Tulsa but a combined 15-for-38 against Army and FIU), Banks settled in, struggling at ECU for some reason but otherwise posting a 153.4 passer rating.

Banks not only threw well but also threw a lot late. Either because of run inefficiency or some philosophical shift, Banks threw at least 24 passes in four of the final five games, and he was 35-for-56 for 565 yards in the last two. A more pass-heavy identity looked pretty good on him.

Banks is mobile enough; he had over 11 non-sack rushes per game and averaged 5.7 yards per carry with far greater efficiency than his backs. But Tulane’s offense improved when he threw more, and he gets last year’s top five targets back. That includes a pretty devastating top two of senior slot man Terren Encalade and Z-receiver Darnell Mooney.

Fritz’s offense has long been regarded as unconventional, and last year’s passing game was no different. Your X receiver is typically your top guy, lined up opposite the strong side and taking on No. 1 corners; well, two different X receivers (Jabril Clewis and Jacob Robertson Jr.) combined for just 48 targets and 5.3 yards per target. And if you’re operating out of a run-heavy system, hitting the tight end up the seam is often a play-action weapon of choice. But tight end Charles Jones II averaged just 6.5 yards per catch.

Your Z receiver is your strong-side guy, typically as much of a stocky blocker as a pass catcher, as much an efficiency option as a big-play threat. But Mooney is listed at just 5’11, 170 pounds, and he averaged 17.6 yards per catch. And Encalade was dynamite out of the slot, combining a 61 percent catch rate with an average of nearly 19 yards per catch. He also had a 58-yard run among his four carries.

Typical, it may not have been. But it was awfully effective. And it could be again in 2018. With Banks entering his second year, the Wave’s most efficient run options (Banks and Bradwell) and most of the line returning, and Encalade, Mooney, and the whole receiving corps back, not to mention longtime Fritz coordinator Doug Ruse? Yeah, this could be fun.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
Terren Encalade
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

In Jack Curtis’ second year as Tulane coordinator, the Green Wave did some of the same things well that they did in 2016 — they were efficient on standard downs, and they allowed a pretty low completion rate. That’s a pretty good start.

Those were about the only similarities, though. Tulane returned eight of its top linemen from 2016, but end Robert Kennedy made it only five games, tackle Eldrick Washington made it only six, and Tulane sank from 40th to 67th in Rushing S&P+ and from 46th to 97th in points allowed per scoring opportunity.

Eventually, the troubles transitioned to the back. Just as Tulane was figuring out how to throw, so were opponents.

  • Opponent passing, first 5 games vs. G5 competition: 47% completion rate, 118.1 passer rating, 7.6% INT rate
  • Opponent passing, last 5 games: 61% completion rate, 140.1 passer rating, 2.9% INT rate

Now, part of that came from the competition. Tulane was playing Army and Navy and USF early on, then faced pass attacks like Memphis’ and SMU’s later on.

But defensively, the Wave were a step behind. And now they have to replace half their starters and those responsible for over half of their havoc plays.

Tulane v Oklahoma
Chase Kuerschen (36)
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

There is hope in youth. Sophomore linemen Cameron Sample and Patrick Johnson saw more playing time than expected, and the emergence of freshman safety Chase Kuerschen allowed then-senior Jarrod Franklin to transition to nickel back and make a lot of plays. Franklin’s gone, but sophomore Tirise Barge might be ready to thrive in the same role.

Fritz signed a pretty killer recruiting class, and Curtis proved last year that he doesn’t mind playing youngsters. Safety Dorian Camel and tackles Jeffrey Johnson and Alfred Thomas were nearly four-star prospects, and prospects like end Juan Monjarres and linebacker La’Dedric Jackson were in the mid-three-star range. Any could enter the rotation quickly.

That could mean good things for 2019 and beyond, but 2018 will depend on the handful of important seniors still around: Kennedy, linebacker Zachery Harris, safety Roderic Teamer Jr., and, most importantly, cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr., who led the team with 17 havoc plays (three tackles for loss, 14 passes defensed).

There’s talent, but we’ll see if enough of it is ready. S&P+ is skeptical (projected defensive rank: 122nd).

Tulsa v Tulane
Donnie Lewis Jr.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Special Teams

Tulane leapt from 117th to 37th in Special Teams S&P+. Place-kicker Merek Glover was a nice find, making eight of nine field goals under 40 yards. He wasn’t asked to attempt any longer FGs, so he might not have range, but he was an improvement.

Punter Zachary Block’s punts were short but mostly unreturnable, and the return duo of Badie and Jacob Robertson Jr. was solid.

Badie’s the only one gone. Block is a senior, Glover a junior, and Robertson a sophomore. This should be a decent unit again.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Wake Forest 34 -11.4 25%
8-Sep Nicholls State NR 17.6 84%
15-Sep at UAB 91 -4.1 41%
22-Sep at Ohio State 1 -36.1 2%
28-Sep Memphis 42 -9.1 30%
6-Oct at Cincinnati 88 -5.1 38%
20-Oct SMU 74 -3.1 43%
27-Oct at Tulsa 108 0.1 50%
3-Nov at USF 56 -11.6 25%
10-Nov East Carolina 125 11.0 74%
15-Nov at Houston 59 -11.2 26%
24-Nov Navy 85 -0.8 48%
Projected S&P+ Rk 98
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 41 / 122
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.8 (104)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 79 / 84
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 1.4
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (84%, 44%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.0 (0.0)

We’ve been here before, but things look pretty strong for Tulane. Fritz just signed an immaculate class — per the 247Sports Composite, the 2018 Wave class ranked third in the AAC, up from 11th in 2016 and 2017. There’s a handful of exciting sophomores, and if Corey Dauphine lives up to his hype, Tulane’s got a pair of big-time junior running backs.

Will they have enough defense in 2018, though? It’s hard to guarantee it. And the schedule could be a further obstacle. Road trips to Cincinnati, UAB, and Tulsa are tenuous (and would be projected wins at home), and S&P+ projects the Wave as outright favorites in just two games, with five relative tossups.

They’ll have to win almost all of them to bowl, as road games against Ohio State, USF, and Houston are likely losses, and home games against Wake Forest and Memphis might be out of reach.

But don’t count a Fritz team out; granted, he’s behind schedule — he went 14-1 in his second year at Sam Houston and won Blinn CC the NJCAA national title in year two — but he’s a hell of a program builder.

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