A few weeks ago we published Pt. 1 of Tulane’s 2021 schedule breakdown and dropped our predictions for the non-conference portion of the year. Now we’re here to really dive into the meat of the Wave’s slate and break down just how well we think they’ll fare to start AAC play in October. The first four conference games feature tough opponents including the likes of Cincinnati and SMU. These contests will be tough but also crucial for the Wave in setting themselves up to compete toward season’s end.
Let’s dive in.
October 2 - at East Carolina
The first conference game sends the team on the road to Greenville for a date with the Pirates. ECU has not beaten Tulane since 2014 but don’t let your guard down just yet Wave fans. The last three meetings have been closer than Fritz and his crew would have liked and this year’s Pirate team is hungry for a rebound season after a lowly 3-6 record last year.
Holton Ahlers has over 7,000 passing yards on his very solid career at ECU and doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down in 2021. C.J. Johnson and Tyler Snead will serve as big weapons for Ahlers but the real tale of this game could come down to how well the Pirates hold things up on the left side of their offensive line. A pair of freshmen, Nishad Strother and Avery Jones will be asked to bolster that edge. If they can keep Ahlers upright in the pocket then he’ll have a chance to pick apart Tulane’s defense.
Conversely, this serves as an excellent opportunity for the Wave pass rush to put some serious heat on. Nose tackle Jeffery Johnson needs to take advantage of the inexperience of ECU’s line and lead the charge for Tulane’s own freshman duo of Darius Hodges and Eric Hicks Jr. The formula for success in the conference opener is pretty easy: get to Ahlers and make him uncomfortable.
The Prediction: This has the makings of one of those games that’s a head-scratcher early on. Tulane will be coming off a brutal non-conference portion of the season and may look worse for the wear early on. ECU will jump out to an early lead at home and maybe even hold it until halftime. Ahlers will be sharp all game long but ultimately the Green Wave’s talent will kick in and Tulane will regain control in the second half. Once again the result will be closer than anticipated but once again the Wave will win.
Final: ECU 21 - Tulane 31
October 7 - Houston
A Thursday night tradition fitting for a primetime slot; that’s what Tulane v Houston has become as of late and this year will be no different. Under the ESPN lights to start October, the Coogs come to town for the first time since the game of the year happened in 2019. No more D’Eriq King but that’s not necessarily a problem for junior Clayton Tune who is coming off his best season in nearly every statistical passing category.
Joining him will be running back Mulbah Car. Car looks to take over the lead RB position this fall after Kyle Porter’s departure but after only carrying 52 times last fall for not even 200 yards we have yet to see what he can do as the featured guy.
Through the air, however, is where Houston looks to do its damage. The Cougars like to run a four-receiver set and this year it will feature guys like Jeremy Singleton, Bryson Smith and Nathaniel Dell amongst others. Dell led the team in receptions (29) and yards (428) last year and while the dynamic Marquez Stevenson is gone, this corps is complimented by a versatile tight end in Christian Trahan. Another tall task awaits the Green Wave DBs.
Despite all the offensive power, though, Tulane ought to be most concerned with the Cougars’ special teams and, more specifically, Marcus Jones. Last season Jones led the AAC in punt return average (19.7 yards per return), total punt return yards (337) and was one of only two players in the conference to register a punt return touchdown. The bad news for the Wave is that he’s just as scary on kickoffs as well. Jones averaged 20.4 yards per kick return in 2020. One big key for hanging with Houston will be avoiding special teams collapses and keeping the ball away from Jones will go a long way.
The Prediction: The Yulman crowd is going to be fired up and Tulane’s defense is going to feed off that energy. Much like they did last year the D will force early Houston mistakes to give the Wave an advantage. Unlike last year, however, Michael Pratt and the offense will be able to hold onto the lead and edge it out. Don’t get it wrong, the Cougars will fight hard in this game and stay uncomfortably close all night but a long, calculated drive featuring many totes from Cameron Carroll will put them away and Tulane will get their revenge from last fall.
Final: Tulane 30 - Houston 24
October 21 - at SMU
The teams from Texas will be coming in twos this year. Following the Houston game, Tulane will hit the road again to face SMU in what has proven to be a tough game every year. In fact, the Green Wave have never beaten the Mustangs with Fritz as their head coach despite having five tries.
In order to turn the fortunes in their favor this time out, they’ll have to find an answer for receiver Rashee Rice and tight end Grant Calcaterra. Rice was last season’s leading receiver for SMU with 683 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Calcaterra is looking to establish himself as one of the top go-to guys on the Mustangs offense after bouncing around Power Five programs like Oklahoma and Auburn. Injuries provided setbacks but now with an upstart SMU squad don’t expect this young man to have a quiet season. Tulane will need to focus their defensive game plan around these two.
If that wasn’t enough, Ulysses Bentley will be handling the duties on the ground. In 2020 he stepped in when an injury sidelined TJ McDaniel and right off the jump Bentley was a force. He finished last year with 913 rush yards on 170 carries. No doubt if SMU wins this game he’ll be a big reason why. It feels like we’re repeating ourselves way too much here but Tulane tacklers will need to be on their toes. Nick Anderson, Joseph Dorceus, Dorian Williams, etc... we hope you’re listening.
The Prediction: This might be Tulane’s hardest fought win of the season. Yes, we’re giving them the victory but it won’t come easy and the Green Wave defense will be pushed to their limit. Bentley will rush for a couple scores, transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai will toss a few more. Pratt and the offense will save the day though. In a back-and-forth battle an unsung hero will arise for Tulane. Perhaps Tyjae Spears finds the end zone late? Maybe Will Wallace secures the game winning grab. With the main guys locked down by SMU’s defense, someone is going to get it done.
Final: SMU 21 - Tulane 27
October 30 - Cincinnati
Let’s be upfront, this is the only AAC game I am picking Tulane to lose. The defending conference champion Bearcats are pegged as favorites again and it is with good reason: Desmond Ridder. As a junior, Ridder went toe to toe with a very good Georgia team in last year’s Peach Bowl and nearly led Cincy to the victory. Until that point, many felt that Cincinnati got the annual G5 snub from the College Football Playoff following an 8-0 regular season and a conference title win. They finished the season #8 in the country and you better believe they’re out for blood again in 2021.
Ridder returns along with a very talented receiving corps of Tre Tucker, Alec Pierce and grad-transfer Michael Young Jr. Tucker averaged over 13 yards per reception last fall and caught three touchdowns while Pierce hauled in another three off 18 catches. Young came over from Notre Dame and caught 29 passes for 332 yards last fall. Any one of these young men may very well be the game-changer against a Tulane secondary trying to find its identity.
Defensively the Bearcats boast perhaps the AAC’s best defender in corner Ahmed Gardner. Some see Gardner as a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft and could you really blame them? He has six interceptions, two touchdowns off said interceptions, 59 total tackles and 12 passes defended in just two seasons. What does that mean for the Tulane offense? Nothing good.
The Prediction: Okay, so the game is at home and we should expect a packed house at Yulman for this one. Who knows what Tulane is fighting for at this juncture but odds are they’ll be dueling a team looking to secure a berth in the AAC Championship again. Try as they might, Fritz’s team just won’t have enough to keep pace. Ridder is simply too good and Cincy will go as he goes. A big offensive performance coupled with key defensive stops will propel the Bearcats to a solid victory.
Final: Tulane 21 - Cincinnati 35
Projected Mid-Season Record: 3-1
Final Thoughts: October is going to be a brutal month for Tulane and they’re going to need to find a way through it with success in order to actually be able to compete in November. 3-1 isn’t just the prediction here, realistically it’s the mark the Wave will need to hit if they want a legitimate chance to contend down the stretch because spoiler: November doesn’t get any easier. Fritz just said on Friday, though, that this is the most depth he’s ever had with his team so if any Tulane squad can do it, it’s these guys.