Tulane is off to a 7-1 start and unbeaten in the American Athletic Conference at 4-0, while also being ranked No. 21 in this week’s AP Poll. But is all well in Green Wave land?
There is no doubt that the standards have been set much higher this season after Tulane went 12-2, won the AAC title, and beat USC 46-45 in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
The expectations coming into this year were more of the same. Tulane was picked first in the AAC preseason poll, earning 20 of the 33 first-place votes.
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Last season, the Green Wave went 7-1 in the AAC, with the only loss 38-31 at home against UCF. Tulane beat UCF in the rematch, 45-28 in the championship game.
And remember last year, Tulane not only had to play UCF but fellow current Power Five members Cincinnati and Houston. The Green Wave won at Houston and Cincinnati last year by identical 27-24 scores.
While the AAC could still very well be the top Group of Five conference, it was the best last year. This year it has taken a big hit with Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF having left for the Big 12. Last year, the departed trio were a combined 26-14. Even though all three are struggling this year in the Big 12 (a combined 1-14 in conference play), they were still giants in the AAC.
Last year, Tulane was also 7-1 at this point, so what is the worry this season?
The Green Wave are winning, but are not exactly steamrolling over opponents. Their average margin of victory in their four AAC wins is just 7.5 points.
The Green Wave survived a 30-28 win at Rice this past week. While Rice, led by standout QB JT Daniels, is vastly improved, Tulane led 27-7 at halftime and then had to hold off an impressive second-half rally by the Owls, who got to within 30-28 on Daniels’ 35-yard scoring pass to Luke McCaffrey’s with 8:16 left.
After a short kickoff return, Tulane then held the ball for 8:06, before giving the ball on downs to Rice at its own 14-yard line with just four seconds remaining.
That is what good teams do, run down the clock when needed, but the question is why did it have to come to this?
It’s worth repeating, Tulane is judged on a much higher curve after last year.
Maybe Tulane will be fine. One could point to the fact that there were numerous close AAC games last year. Except for a 59-24 rout of visiting SMU, every other AAC game for Tulane was decided by two scores or fewer.
This year’s only loss was 37-20 at home against Ole Miss, but the Green Wave played that game without standout QB Michael Pratt, who was injured.
Pratt, who missed two earlier games, is having a fine season. He is completing 71.3% of his passes for 1,384 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Pratt has also rushed for 239 yards (3.9 avg.) and four touchdowns.
One difference this year is that Tulane misses the explosiveness of RB Tyjae Spears. Now with the Tennessee Titans, Spears rushed for 1,581 yards (6.9 avg.) and 19 touchdowns.
Makhi Hughes has done a fine job leading the ground game with 772 yards (5.5 avg.) and five touchdowns, but Spears, who was the AAC Offensive Player of the Year, just added an extra dimension.
Maybe Tulane is just the type of team that does what it needs to do to win, but besides Memphis, the other three AAC victories are over UAB, North Texas, and Rice, teams with a combined 4-8 conference record.
The final four AAC games are collectively a bit more difficult. Actually, it’s really only the final two. Tulane visits East Carolina (1-7, 0-4) this week, hosts Tulsa (3-5, 1-3), and then has two interesting games to end the season – at FAU (4-4, 3-1) and home against UTSA (5-3, 4-0).
Tulane, UTSA, and SMU are the three teams unbeaten in AAC play.
Maybe there should be no concern with Tulane. The program, which was 2-10 as recently as 2021, is now in its second consecutive season of winning big, even if it hasn’t always come in a dominant fashion. We’ll see over the final month if this really matters.