Tuesday, August 26, 2003

2003 Tulane Football Preview

I think this is the hardest season in several years to get a handle on. Can you honestly say you would be surprised by any win total from four to nine? For instance, I haven’t a clue about the defense. Can they continue their march back to respectability despite losing the defensive front and Tulane’s best defensive player since Brother Martin’s Pat Stant?

Last year was a referendum on the Scelfo era: they were finally his players, his program. Coming off a three-win year, a two/three win season last year meant that the 2003 campaign would probably have been his last. Of course, the Wave over-achieved from the start. A team that on paper looked to struggle to win five games, won eight- and featured great wins over Southern Mississippi and Hawaii that more than off-set a bad loss to Army.

Now, a lot of the analysis about Tulane is wrong this year. They won eight games last year, but not because of a “great offense”. The “great offense” and “great back” couldn’t run the ball a lick against decent rush defenses (with the exception of USM). In their five losses they ran the ball for a total of just under 300 yards. Tulane’s great strength on offense is that they spread the ball around to a lot of receivers- and for all of the Wave’s faults they do seem to produce lots of guys at the skill-positions who can catch the ball. I guess if you throw the ball 50 times a game, two guys by default are going to catch seven balls for 90 yards. And if you can throw it, you can run it- at least a little bit- in the spread field- even with an inexperienced, undersized offensive line.

I imagine the offense will be much the same this year. The line still won’t be able to generate a decent, consistent rushing attack, but they’ll spread the ball around a lot through the air to people who can play Division I-A, and in the end they’ll be good, maybe even good-plus, for the most part.

Defense is another question. They won last year because while the defense couldn’t stop anybody other than Army straight up, they did manage to force a ton of turnovers. The DL generated decent pressure up front (what Tulane fan was not crying with joy during the Hawaii Bowl at the pass rush). The presence of Elphage, and his capacity to take the best wide receiver out of the game, allowed Tulane to stuff lots of guys in the box to appear respectable against the run- if only on occasion. They gambled and blitzed a lot- again ‘cause the defensive backs could cover people- and this constant pressure resulted in a lot of turnovers, field position, and more than a few easy scores. Well, the two pillars of that success are gone: I am very unsure they can cover people this year and the defensive line is very, very young.

The latter really hurts- because DL is one place you cannot afford to play freshmen. It takes these kids a few years to grow the body required to play in the trenches. Worse, they compensate for that by not being particularly athletic in the secondary any more. They're on the field constantly too- as the Wave runs no semblance of ball control on offense.

College football is ultimately a product of three items: players, coaching and schedule. Until last year, it was hard to characterize Scelfo as a good coach or a bad coach- he sort of did what could be expected. Every year the team had won about as many games that ought to have been expected. It was hard to recruit at Tulane, and accordingly he didn't get many good players. But last year, they undoubtedly overachieved- and he deserves credit for that. The schedule is tricky. Northwestern State is a lay up, but it will be hard to get three wins out of September. They’ll need the Army game for sure- but they’ll be more than a TD underdog in all three of the remaining September games. Tulane should beat Houston and Memphis at home. Navy is horrible. I don’t think they can win any of their last three- maybe UAB.

So that’s five. I think that seems right. They played above expectations last year and won seven regular season games. This year, the schedule is harder, the defense probably down and who knows about the kicking game- which was arguably the best in the country last year. The TCU, Mississippi State, UAB and East Carolina games are the keys. I have them winning one of those now. Get two, they probably go to the New Orleans Bowl.