Team: Tulane Green Wave
2014 record: 3-9 (2-6 AAC)
Recap: Curtis Johnson raised the bar in 2013 when he obtained a winning record and took Tulane to a bowl game—both firsts in over a decade of disastrous play. That, however, made it quite difficult to swallow the reality that Tulane wasn’t near ready to sustain similar success.
Conference wins against UConn and Houston kept the Green Wave modest, but it was clear by Week 5 that this wasn’t the same quality team that had won five Conference USA games the year prior. Its top 25 defense in total yards regressed dramatically, falling from 4.89 yards per play (16th nationally) to 5.65 (73rd) while allowing an extra touchdown per game (21.4 to 28.4). Combine that with a bad offense that got much worse (24.8 points to 16.0), and you take a pretty big step backward.
Johnson returns 13 starters and some playmakers on defense, but generating some sort of consistency on offense will determine whether Tulane progresses in the right direction or ultimately stays at the bottom of the AAC standings.
Key player: Royce LaFrance, Sr., DE
Tulane struggled to find a pass rush outside of LaFrance last season, but with much of the front seven’s core returning in 2015, it’s expected that he’ll get a little more help. Still, LaFrance will need to spend most of his time in opponents’ backfield to avoid putting too much pressure on a secondary dealing with some decent amount of turnover. He has the chance to become an all-conference defensive end, if he can finally put it all together (including academic shortcomings).
Biggest strength: Run defense
Despite inevitable regression following big-time departures of Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport, Tulane’s ability to stop the run and force opponents to lean toward the pass remained a strength. With 13 of the front seven’s top 14 players on the two-deep back, we can look forward to this unit returning to its 2013 form, when it held opponents to 3.18 yards per carry (No. 6 overall).
Biggest weakness: Quarterback
Even if the defense returns to its formidable state, nothing will matter if Tulane’s offense doesn’t improve from being the fifth-worst scoring unit in college football to somewhere near the lines of competency. This all starts with quarterback play, which has been a complete trainwreck since Ryan Griffin grabbed a spot on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad following the 2012 season. Since then, Green Wave quarterbacks have combined to complete 459-of-852 (53.9 percent) pass attempts for a meager 5.7 yards per attempt with 32 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. Johnson has kept his faith in the development of sophomore Tanner Lee, but if he isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of where he was as a true freshman, Tulane is in trouble.
Most important game: vs. UCF (Oct. 3)
Tulane will have two weeks to prepare for a home game against UCF, and this matchup could prove extremely vital down the stretch. Opening against Duke, Georgia Tech, and Maine before seeing the Knights, the Green Wave go on to play at Temple, vs. Houston, at Navy, and at Memphis the next four weeks. See why this is pretty important?
Best-case scenario: 6-6 (4-4)
Like I said, if the offense becomes slightly below average—somewhere around the 70s out of 129 FBS teams in terms of points scored—then this is a bowl team, no doubt. There are winnable games on this schedule, albeit toward the backend.
Worst-case scenario: 1-11 (0-8)
Maybe the defense can’t find that second source for a pass rush and is forced to become passive. Maybe the secondary suffers because it can’t compensate, and its 13th-ranked number of interceptions gained is cut in half thanks to the turnover. Maybe Sherman Badie isn’t enough—again—to overcome the lack of an efficient passing game, and Tulane’s offense scores 14 points or less in eight different games for the second year in a row.
Early prediction: 3-9 (1-7)
We will probably have to wait at least one more year before Johnson is able to get Tulane back to the postseason. Unfortunately, the offense doesn’t have enough stability or firepower to contend with a scoring-friendly AAC, and an unforgiving schedule—its first eight opponents combined for a 66-36 record in 2014—looms.