The American Athletic Conference has been far from normal this season.
Houston has two losses, Cincinnati is no longer ranked (they lost the spot following their week 1 loss to Arkansas), and Tulane is sitting at the top, alone, at undefeated.
You read that right — After going 2-10 in 2021, the Tulane Green Wave is 3-0.
Their success this season isn’t exactly a secret formula. They aren’t revolutionizing football — though, their gutsy fourth-down call against Kansas State is pretty dang close to that — but they are playing sound football, especially on the defense side of the ball.
In 2021, Tulane didn’t find much success on defense. The Green Wave allowed 34 points per game, including 52 points against East Carolina, 55 against SMU, and 40 to Oklahoma.
This season, they’ve allowed just 6.67 points per game, including 10 points to Big 12 opponent Kansas State just a week prior.
Interestingly, their rise on defense didn’t come with a new defensive coordinator or some large influx of new talent. Head coach Willie Fritz retained defensive coordinator Chris Hampton; while the team added two starters via the transfer portal — defensive lineman Patrick Jenkins (TCU) and safety Lummie Young IV (Duke) — neither have been particular world beaters (though they’ve both been good.)
Instead, the Tulane Green Wave are just playing dang good defense, especially on the front end.
The easiest way for a defense to not allow points is not to give the offense good opportunities to score, agreed?
Tulane is seemingly taking that point to heart, as they rarely allow opposing offenses past midfield and when they do, they often hold them to just a field goal or they find a way to get off the field.
Kansas State had three scoring opportunities — which is any drive when the offense advances the ball past the opponent’s 40-yard line — and the Wildcats scored just 10 points on these opportunities.
Those scoring opportunities include a drive that started at the Tulane 23-yard line following a Michael Pratt interception. Kansas State got down to the Tulane 4-yard line before settling for a field goal.
According to CollegeFootballData, Tulane has conceded just four scoring opportunities and has allowed 2.5 points per these opportunities, showing a striking improvement from 2021, when Tulane allowed 3.8 points per scoring opportunity.
In so many ways, Tulane’s defense is just suffocating. They haven’t particularly exposed a weakness and from the defensive line to the secondary, are finding success and ways to win.
The Green Wave has a havoc rate — defined as the percentage of plays in which the defense generates a ‘havoc event’ like a TFL or turnover — of 14% along the front seven and opposing offenses have a -0.06 PPA (predicted points added) on rushing plays.
Tulane’s success is fittingly explained by its success rate. Success rate is an advanced metric that measures an offense or defense’s efficiency with the added context of down and distance being taken into account. It’s not perfect but it offers a nice explanation of where how good teams are able to contain opposing offenses.
With that being said, let’s find Tulane’s defensive success rate on a national scale.
Not only is Tulane the best AAC team based on defensive success rate but they’re also one of the best in the nation — sitting around teams like Iowa, who have some of the better defenses in the nation.
Overall, their defensive success is 29% and that number drops to 20% when teams face passing downs. While Tulane’s defense has been successful, they’ve also been highly good at limited explosive plays, forcing teams to either wear them down or punt the ball.
The Green Wave normally runs three down lineman sets, while also including a Joker position. The joker position is a combination defensive end and linebacker who normally lines up more like a stand-up edge rusher.
For the most part, these 3 down lineman sets are tite fronts, a defensive front made popular by Baylor head coach Dave Aranda. The tite front consists of the two defensive ends in a 4i alignment (inside shoulder of a left tackle) and the interior defensive lineman in a 0 technique (on top of the center).
The tite front allows defenses to plug up everything inside the tackles, forcing offenses to attack the outside.
Tulane lines up in a very prototypical tite front look, while Kansas State calls a zone run play. Since Tulane has five guys responsible for clogging the inside back, they’re able to prevent the running back from getting anything.
The above play is a perfect example of the importance that the defensive line gets good push and can fill their gaps when necessary. In the case of Tulane, their defense is really built upon that defensive line.
A lot of times, Kansas State played into the hands of this defense by running plays to the inside.
The thing about Tulane’s defense is even when teams try and run to the outside, their non defensive linemen do a good job of flying into their spots and filling their run fits.
On the very next play, Kansas State pull the center to set up an outside run. Instead of allowing a big run, Tulane safety Larry Brooks flies in to fill the gap and make a nice tackle on running back Duece Vaughn.
On third downs, Tulane has used a lot of simulated pressures in an attempt to confuse offenses and manipulate what they can run.
Simulated pressures involve sending a second-level defender (LB or DB) and dropping a first-level defender (DL) into coverage. These simulated pressures often disguise themselves as five or six man blitzes but can involve sending just four players.
On this one, Tulane shows a man-to-man look pre-snap. As a result, Kansas State QB Adrian Martinez sees that and anticipates such a look. However, Tulane is dropping Dorian Williams (no. 2) into coverage and play zone instead. The result is a short pass that turns into a 4th down, forcing a Kansas State punt.
Tulane later runs a creeper pressure — which is similar to a simulated pressure but the second-level defender does not show blitz pre-snap. In this case, Tulane drops Darius Hodge (no. 6) into coverage and sends the linebacker.
The presnap look gives Martinez the idea that it’s going to be a cover 1 man — with the dropping linebacker moving to an edge rusher role. Martinez adjusts for such and instead, Tulane drops both edge rushers and shifts into zone coverage. The result is a gain short of the sticks and a punt on 4th down.
These simulated pressures can bend rules on third downs. They’re major parts of ‘positionless football’ and, for Tulane, they have become critical parts of how they can get quarterbacks to second guess their reads.