Last fall something happened in New Orleans that hadn’t taken place since head coach Willie Fritz took over; things felt like they stagnated for Tulane’s football program. Now that’s not to say the Green Wave had a bad season by any stretch because they certainly didn’t. The team finished top of the AAC in two major statistical categories: sacks (37) and rushing offense (over 2,500 yards). They made a return trip to a bowl game and two more players were drafted into the NFL.
So why do we say it felt stagnant?
Fritz’s time with the Wave has been defined by steady improvement since he arrived in 2016. In his first season Tulane strung together just four wins and by 2019 they were up to seven and had started consistently reaching bowl season. The pandemic-altered 2020 campaign saw the Wave again manage to go bowling but they lost to a tough Nevada squad and now in his sixth year Fritz still has yet to reach the AAC title game. That means one thing: the pressure is on now.
The good news? He has a shiny new quarterback in Michael Pratt who just may be the future of this program. As a true freshman last year Pratt completed over 55 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns and ran for another eight. There’s plenty of hype around him and for good reason. It’s been a while since Tulane hasn’t had to rely on the transfer portal to find a guy on loan for a year. That in itself is reason for optimism.
But in spite of the newfound stability at QB, the Wave still have several questions that need answering. Who is going to replace Patrick Johnson and Cameron Sample (both drafted into the NFL) on the line? Will the addition of Joseph Dorceus be enough? How will the outgoing transfers of Amare Jones and Willie Langham affect the team? Will new offensive coordinator Chip Long be able to continue to build on the offense that Will Hall left behind?
In short time the team will address all of these nagging worries; they’ll have no choice. The Wave, though, will have a tough slate to navigate as they begin to do so. Let’s jump into it.
September 4 - Oklahoma
What a way kick off the season. The defending Big 12 champion Sooners will travel to Yulman Stadium to get things started and, much like the last time Oklahoma squared off with the Green Wave, they will be led by one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. In 2017 Baker Mayfield was calling the signals and now it will be Spencer Rattler.
Rattler is pegged by many to a top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and is coming off a stellar freshman season in which he threw for over 3,031 yards (good for 10th in the nation), 28 touchdowns, claimed Big 12 Championship MVP honors and helped the Sooners handedly defeat Florida in the Cotton Bowl. The kid is electric in every sense of the word and the Tulane defense could be in for a long, long afternoon trying to deal with him alone.
It’s a long shot to say that Pratt will be able to stay with Rattler blow for blow but nothing’s impossible. He will have to rely heavily on his his talented receivers if he is to do so however. The Watts brothers, Phat and Deuce who combined for 729 yards and six scores last year, will have to be at their best against a Sooner secondary that consists of Pat Fields, Delarrin Turner-Yell and Woodi Washington.
On the other side, new Tulane defensive coordinator Chris Hampton will have a hell of a first test and will undoubtedly place much of the burden on linebackers Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson. Williams and Anderson tallied 185 total tackles between them in 2020 (26 for loss) and they may be the best chance at a saving grace in this game. With a new-look secondary and a line that just lost talent to the NFL, the linebacking corps appears to be the most stable point on defense. Look for these two to attempt to body up running back Kennedy Brooks often and they’ll need to. Brooks has two 1,000-yard seasons and 18 touchdowns on his career.
Macon Clark and Jaylon Monroe will be patrolling the back end and will have their own set of worries with Oklahoma receivers Theo Wease and Marvin Mims. Mims led the Sooners and was fourth overall in the Big 12 last season with 610 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 37 catches. He’s as dangerous as they come and will look to be a huge headache for the Tulane secondary.
No matter how you draw it up, this is a tall order.
The Prediction: The Greenies will come out of the gates firing and the raucous New Orleans faithful will spur the Wave to an early lead. Rattler and the high-octane Sooners offense will get going in a hurry, though. The game may be closer than some expect at halftime but ultimately Oklahoma will prove to be too much. Don’t be surprised if Tulane hangs around for a while but when the dust settles OU comes out on top by a solid margin.
Final: Tulane 23 - Oklahoma - 42
September 11 - Morgan State (FCS)
This one could be a breath of fresh air between a brutal Week 1 and Week 3. Now of course we don’t like to disparage any FCS program here but logic says that Tulane should have minimal issues with a Bears team that hasn’t played a game since 2019 due to the pandemic.
When they did last play, Morgan State was only able to muster up a 3-9 overall record and finished second to last in the MEAC. Furthermore, much of that 2019 team is gone now. Transfer quarterback Neil Boudreau came in from San Diego State and receiver Wesley Wolfolk is back but it’s still going to be a stretch to say that the Bears will be able to stick around. We expect it to be pretty straightforward business for Fritz’s crew in this one.
Tulane has made light work of the FCS competition they’ve faced over the last five seasons and we’re banking on the same here.
The Prediction: It could be one of those days where the backups get called in during the second half. Pratt and company will do what they’re supposed to do and pull away from Morgan State early and Tulane will capitalize on opportunities to build a comfortable halftime lead. After that it’ll be the B squad who take it home. It’ll be interesting to see more Justin Ibieta who appeared just briefly last season and is projected to be QB2 after Keon Howard entered the transfer portal.
Final: Tulane 48 - Morgan State 16
September 18 - at Mississippi
We’ll really see what this Tulane team is made of after the first three weeks. As if Oklahoma wasn’t enough, the first road trip of the season will send the Green Wave to Oxford, MS for a date with the Rebels. Ole Miss is coming off a 5-5 campaign that they concluded with an Outback Bowl victory over Indiana. The Lane Kiffin experiment is just beginning though and we all know his teams can pick up steam and garner excitement.
Once again Tulane’s defense will be put on the hot seat with Matt Corral calling the signals. Corral threw for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns a season ago as a sophomore and seems primed for another similar year. Now the Rebels did lose star receiver Elijah Moore to the NFL but Braylon Sanders and Dontario Drummond haven’t gone anywhere and that could spell trouble. The duo tallied nearly 800 receiving yards and ten scores in 2020 and need to be the focal point of the Wave’s back-end scheme.
Then there’s that ground game. Yes, the one that ranked second in the SEC last year with almost 2,000 total yards. Jerrion Ealy spearheaded the operation then and will do so again in 2021. Ealy ran for 745 yards and found the end zone nine times last fall so just as we said with Oklahoma, the linebackers Williams and Anderson will need to hone in on the ground game if Tulane is to have a chance. Dorceus will need to make his presence known also but even then it’s going to be difficult.
The Prediction: This one will be closer than the Oklahoma game but there isn’t quite enough here to make us believe the Wave will walk away with a victory. Pratt will find a nice rhythm and make some impressive plays to his receivers throughout the duration. The defense will make a few key plays but ultimately will give up just a tad too much by way of the rushing attack. Ealy will prove to be the downfall late by churning out first downs and clock as Tulane suffers a hard-fought loss.
Final: Ole Miss 37 - Tulane 24
September 25 - UAB
This could shape up to be the most interesting matchup of the season, not just the non-conference slate. It’s always exciting when Tulane meets UAB. Three years ago the Blazers won when the Wave played the ugliest game of their entire season. A myriad of uncharacteristic mistakes doomed them in Alabama. That year UAB went on to finish with a program-rejuvenating 11-3 record that included a C-USA championship and a Boca Raton Bowl victory.
This year’s Blazer team could present an equally tough test despite the game being at home because much of that 2018 squad is still around. Quarterback Tyler Johnston III is back for his senior season as is receiver Trae Shropshire. Last fall Johnston split the signal-calling duties and threw for over 800 yards and seven touchdowns. Shropshire finished third on the team with 310 receiving yards and two scores. These two look to be leaders of this offense now and could be finding their rhythm by this game rolls around.
The good news for Tulane is that running back Spencer Brown is no longer in the equation. Brown finished his career at UAB with over 4,000 rushing yards and ran for over 100 the last time the Wave faced him but has since departed for the NFL. Sophomore DeWayne McBride will likely be the one to take Brown’s place. In 2020, he ran for 429 yards and found the end zone four times. With the bulk of the workload on the ground expected to go his way, there’ll have to be special attention paid to McBride.
Mistakes will be costly against UAB and safety Will Boler is a big reason why. He has 97 total tackles on his career as well as nine defended passes and one interception. If Pratt doesn’t know where he is at all times, this year’s edition of Tulane v UAB could go down just like the 2018 one.
The Prediction: This is going to be a good old fashioned, back-and-forth duel to the end. Pratt and Johnston will trade shots and it may very well come down to the final possession. The ground games won’t necessarily be rendered null but the fireworks will definitely come primarily through air. Tulane will make a huge defensive play at the end to seal a hard-fought and much needed victory before conference play begins.
Final: Tulane 35 - UAB 31
Final Thoughts: We have the Wave going 2-2 in the non-conference portion of the year and honestly if they can get out of these four games at an even .500 that’s a win. This is one of the more brutal starts to the season Tulane has seen in quite some time. Iron sharpens iron though, and these games will serve as a great litmus test to see exactly where this team is before the meat of the season. A scare (or even an upset) against one of the P5 opponents would go a long way in instilling confidence and fear in the rest of the AAC.