- Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Yulman Stadium — New Orleans, LA
- Spread: Tulane (-6)
- Over/under: 52
- All-time series: Series tied, 1-1
- Last meeting: Tulane 27, South Alabama 24 — September 12, 2020
- Current streak: Tulane, 1 (2020)
Setting the scene
The Week 1 college football buzz is higher than it’s ever been in the Big Easy. The Tulane Green Wave make their triumphant return to the gridiron Saturday night in front of their home fanbase, just eight months after securing the biggest win in program history.
The 2023 Green Wave season was spectacular in every sense, as the program completed the greatest turnaround in college football history from 2-10 to 12-2, claimed their first-ever AAC title, and defeated USC 46-45 in an instant classic Cotton Bowl finish.
After months of celebration for the fanbase, it’s time to face the music for the 2023 season. Expectations are higher than ever as No. 24 Tulane enters with a preseason AP Poll ranking for the first time in program history. But the Green Wave’s first opponent is no pushover.
South Alabama is also coming off its best year in program history, raking in 10 regular season wins in head coach Kane Wommack’s second season. It was the first winning record South Alabama registered since joining the FBS in 2012, and now they look to sustain that success and launch 2023 with their second-ever win over an AP-ranked team.
South Alabama Jaguars outlook
Just like Tulane, South Alabama preseason expectations are at an all-time high. The Jaguars received one AP Poll vote and ranked second behind Troy in the Sun Belt preseason poll. Wommack enters year three at the helm with a bulk of experience, returning his starting quarterback, the team’s three leading running backs, two 800-yard receivers, and the top six tacklers from 2022.
The impetus behind the Jaguars’ 10-win season was a defense which ranked 26th nationally in points allowed per game. South Alabama dominated up front, stifling opponents to an average of 94 rushing yards — good for fifth in the FBS. Outside linebacker Trey Kiser was the architect of that movement, contributing 76 tackles and a team-high 11 tackles for loss. That facet of the Jaguars’ game has been stellar ever since Corey Batoon took over as the defensive coordinator in 2021, and it should remain that way with run-stoppers like strong safety Jaden Voisin (79 tackles, 6.0 TFLs) and inside linebacker James Miller (68 tackles, 5.5 TFLs).
The defense remains loaded up front and in the back. Jamie Sheriff returns as the lead pass rusher after producing 6.0 sacks in 2022, while First Team All-Sun Belt defensive back Yam Banks mans the secondary as the conference’s reigning leader in interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars are fresh off producing their best scoring output since joining the FBS at 31.2 points per game — an impressive turn of events after ranking below 90th in scoring offense every year from 2013 to 2021. South Alabama benefited from the arrival of former Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley, who shattered the school passing yards record by over 600 yards with 3,335. While he loses one of his go-to targets in Jalen Wayne, he is surrounded by Devin Voisin and Caullin Lacy, who tied for the team-lead with 64 receptions last fall.
The passing game was the primary strength of the offense, but the rushing attack wasn’t too shabby either. Former Florida State running back La’Damian Webb also made a grand arrival for the 2022 season and broke out into a 1,000-yard rusher. Webb racked up over five yards per carry and found the end zone 13 times. His magnum opus was a 2-game span against Arkansas State and Georgia State, where he posted an aggregate 409 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Additional support behind the lead back includes last year’s combo of Braylon McReynolds and Marco Lee — demonstrating the depth and experience South Alabama offers in the backfield.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
It’s time for the follow-up act to Tulane’s sensational 2022 campaign. Fresh off an AAC title, a Cotton Bowl victory, and a No. 9 end-of-year ranking, head coach Willie Fritz returns alongside a bevy of talent, highlighted by the return of eight All-AAC selections.
Tulane’s 2022 success was heavily predicated on the abilities of running back Tyjae Spears, who posted eight consecutive 120-yard games to end last year, including a 204-yard rampage in the Cotton Bowl. But the reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Year is now a member of the Tennessee Titans, and that is one major vacancy the Green Wave must fill.
Shaadie Clayton-Johnson appears destined for the No. 1 role after accruing 333 rushing yards and two touchdowns on a 5.8 average last season. Spears handled such a significant workload, but there was still enough room for Clayton-Johnson to garner double-digit rushes twice last year, and one of those outings was a 14-carry, 106-yard masterpiece against Tulsa. But there should be at least two other tailbacks playing a major role in the run game. Iverson Celestine returns to campus after attaining 306 rushing yards in 2022, while Liberty transfer Shedro Louis spices up the backfield after three consecutive 400-yard seasons for the Flames.
One position that is a certainty for Tulane is quarterback. The Green Wave return Michael Pratt, who enters his fourth consecutive year as the program’s starter. Pratt saw across-the-board improvements in 2023, watching his completion rate spike to 64 percent while eclipsing the 3,000-yard mark for the first time. While Tulane didn’t rely on weekly 300-yard explosions from the 6’3”, 220 yard signal caller, Pratt displayed impressive efficiency with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27-to-5.
However, he’s more than capable of writing his name on the stat-sheet when Tulane’s offense calls for it. Against UCF in the AAC Championship Game, he delivered four touchdown passes in a 394-yard performance, three of which exceeded 40 yards. His top two targets, Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts, are no longer on campus, but explosive playmakers remain in the receiver room. Jha’Quan Jackson, who perfected an 87-yard catch-and-run in the Cotton Bowl, returns after a 554-yard seasons, while Lawrence Keys III is expected to emerge in a larger role after taking 30 receptions for 296 yards in his first season with the Green Wave.
Where this Tulane squad is dominated win football games is in the trenches. The offensive line is the best in the AAC, headlined by one of the nation’s top centers in Sincere Haynesworth as well as fellow First Team All-AAC selection Prince Princes at left guard. Four starters return, so no drop-off from last year’s stellar unit should be observed. On the defensive side, Patrick Jenkins presents a challenge for blockers after garnering a team-high 9.0 tackles for loss in 2022 — including a pivotal safety forced in the Cotton Bowl. The defensive line also retains its top pass rusher in Darius Hodges, who has accumulated 24.5 takedowns behind the line of scrimmage since 2021.
Linebacker remains the greatest question mark after losing the star tandem of Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson, but the Green Wave reloaded with transfer talent including former First Team All-CUSA linebacker Tyler Grubbs from Louisiana Tech. And on the back end, First Team All-AAC selection Jarius Monroe mans one cornerback spot after deflecting eight passes and interception three last year, and he’ll be complemented by the arrival of established defensive back transfers including Kam Pedescleaux from Louisiana and A.J. Hampton from Northwestern.
Tulane’s only non-conference loss in 2022 came from a Sun Belt opponent in Yulman Stadium. One week after upending eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State on the road, the Green Wave were shocked by Southern Miss in a game plagued with a pick six, missed field goals, and fourth down failures. Tulane is on a mission to ensure such a scenario does not transpire again.
This season, given college football’s accelerated clock rules, most of the close games have come of the lower-scoring variety. This one features no shortage of defensive talent, as defined by South Alabama’s dominant crew of run stoppers and Tulane’s extensive talent at defensive line and in the secondary.
There may be a learning curve for Tulane’s offense, as the unit learns how to operate without relying on consistently insane rushing numbers from Tyjae Spears. Perhaps in Spears’ absence, the Green Wave place more faith in Pratt to throw 30+ times regularly — an occurrence observed only four times in 2022. Pratt should be able to get the job done as a passer, since he did countless times late last season, but the Jaguars’ defense won’t make it easy.
Prediction: Tulane 27, South Alabama 17