- Time and date: Saturday, September 30 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Yulman Stadium — New Orleans, LA
- Spread: Tulane (-21.5)
- Over/under: 56.5
- All-time series: UAB leads, 6-5
- Last meeting: UAB 28, Tulane 21 — September 25, 2022
- Current streak: UAB, 2 (2018-21)
Setting the scene
Tulane and UAB are once again conference rivals in the AAC, after previously sharing the CUSA from 1999 through 2013. But when the programs operated in different leagues during the 2021 season, they shared a unique connection.
Tulane evacuated its residence in New Orleans to start the 2021 football season due to the devastating damage caused by Hurricane Ida. The Green Wave relocated their operations to Birmingham for nearly an entire month, playing their first home game at UAB’s former stadium of Legion Field. Tulane finally returned in late September to face Birmingham’s team in UAB. The Blazers emerged in 28-21 fashion over the Green Wave that night, but since the conclusion of that hurricane-riddled season, Tulane has grown into a juggernaut.
The reigning AAC champions aim to improve to 1-0 in conference play against the underdog Blazers, which make their long-awaited debut in their new league Saturday morning at Yulman Stadium.
UAB Blazers outlook
UAB is 1-3, which is unfamiliar territory for the program. Since Blazer football rose from the ashes in 2017, they haven’t seen a losing record through four games, and their last 1-3 start was observed in 2013. The 2023 season for UAB certainly comes with growing pains led by first-year head coach Trent Dilfer, but there were several positives to take away from last Saturday’s 49-21 loss at Georgia.
UAB successfully scored 21 points on a relentless Bulldog defense, including two touchdowns before halftime to send the game into the break at 28-14. The Blazers now have the 2023 season-high for most yards points and yards collected on Georgia, exploding for 250 in the passing game while adding 86 on the ground.
Offense has been UAB’s strength in the early stages of the Dilfer era. Quarterback Jacob Zeno averages north of 300 passing yards per contest, and the former Baylor Bear has played a role in the run game too with a trio of rushing scores on the year. Zeno is operating in a different version of a passing attack than UAB unleashed in prior years. Rather than relying on the run and taking the occasional deep shot — which was the method under offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw — the Blazers utilize screens as a heavy portion of their offense. That shows up in the box score, as six players have 11 or more receptions on the year and five average under nine yards per reception.
Zeno plays a major part in the run game as the team’s second leading rusher, but the Blazers’ rushing attack is contingent on the success of Isaiah Jacobs and Jermaine Brown Jr. Both backs average around four yards per carry, but neither has produced more than 50 yards in a game this season — merely due to a lack of attempts. Screens have been used as a substitute for the run, and that method might be optimal against a relentless Tulane front.
Stopping opponents from posting 40 points has been UAB’s greatest struggle since joining the AAC. All three FBS opponents to challenge the Blazers this fall exceeded 40 points, placing sky-high expectations for UAB’s offense to keep pace in a track meet. It’s been a “pick your poison” situation, as the Blazers rank 17th-to-last in defending the run, allowing 5.3 yards per carry, and allow one of the 10 highest completion rates in the FBS at 70.8 percent.
The Blazers have generated turnovers to a remarkable extent, gathering three interceptions and scooping up four fumbles this season. And the pressure has been nothing to scoff at with a respectable output of 2.5 sacks per game. It’s a matter of staying true to zones in the coverage aspect and avoiding missed tackles. The stars to watch on this defense include nose tackle Fish McWilliams, who clogs up the middle for pass rushers to thrive, and inside linebacker Jackson Bratton, who ranks second on the team with 24 tackles after transferring from Alabama.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane posted a 3-1 record in non-conference play. The Green Wave fell to Ole Miss at home in a game that got away in the fourth quarter, but other than that showing, they’ve looked like the juggernaut that won the Cotton Bowl last year. Each of Tulane’s three wins featured at least 18 points of separation, giving a fitting label of AAC favorites to the Green Wave as conference play commences Saturday.
When Tulane lost to Ole Miss, the Green Wave were bereft of the services of star quarterback Michael Pratt. But the architect of last year’s AAC title and Cotton Bowl victory returned Week 4 after missing two weeks of action. In his second start since stunning USC last January, Pratt completed 18-of-23 passes for 190 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. His completion percentage is a sky-high 84.2 percent through two starts, and he’s not just dumping it off to flats — there is air under some of these throws.
Tulane’s offense was very run-heavy with Tyjae Spears last year, but in 2023, the unit’s signature has been explosiveness in the passing game. Wide receivers Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys III combine for six touchdowns spanning at least 35 yards this year, proving the ability to strike with their speed at any moment. Go routes and deep posts are commonplace in Tulane’s offense, and Pratt should take a fair number of shots to these receivers in one-on-one man coverage.
The run game in a post-Spears universe is still a work in progress, but Tulane seems to have settled one a No. 1 option in Makhi Hughes. The redshirt freshman, who missed the entirety of the 2022 season, rushed for 92 yards against Ole Miss and another 83 against Southern Miss, remaining in search of his first century performance while getting the bulk of the carries. He’s assisted by Shaadie Clayton-Johnson, as well as Pratt — two tough runners who have at least 70 rushing yards thus far.
The trenches are where Tulane thrives on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Green Wave exhibit two First Team All-AAC interior linemen in Sincere Haynesworth and Prince Pines. Defensively, Tulane might have the best front in the conference which was made evident when sacking Ole Miss four times in Week 2. The d-line is captained by Patrick Jenkins on the inside, who ranks supreme on the team with 3.5 sacks this year. Defensive tackle Kameron Hamilton and defensive ends Darius Hodges and Keith Cooper Jr. have also seen rampant success in getting to the quarterback, and that formidable trio combines for 7.5 sacks.
With all the firepower up front, it’s no surprise Tulane’s run defense is sixth in the FBS, yielding 63 yards per game and 2.0 yards per run. Jesus Machado is another force within the unit, compiling over eight tackles per game and stepping up at inside linebacker after Corey Platt Jr. went down with a season-ending injury.
Last week allowed Michael Pratt to get into a rhythm before the arrival of AAC play. Pratt should enjoy a smooth day against UAB’s secondary, equipped with explosive playmaking receivers against a defense that is allowing a 71 percent completion rate and a slew of home run plays.
Tulane also receives homefield advantage for the fourth time this season, and the Green Wave defensive front should thrive in front of the home crowd, facing a UAB rushing attack which hasn’t been able to take over a game this year. Patrick Jenkins and Co. should make UAB’s offense one-dimensional, favoring the pass, allowing Tulane to cruise by with another multi-score victory.
Prediction: Tulane 41, UAB 17