Wednesday, September 07, 2005

2005 Tulane Football Preview

Tulane clearly does now appear to be on some sort of glide path to play football this year. So I am going to “talk” football again- beginning with the important 2005 season prediction. Two weeks ago, returning a ton of players and a lot of known qualities, Tulane felt like a pretty easy team to deconstruct. Now, the Wave is playing in an environment that conversely is impossible to understand. Fasten your seatbelts for an inconsistent, emotional season- a season that I guarantee will feature a shocking emotional upset and an awful weary loss.

As always with our university, the story begins with the Tulane offense. This is the obvious result of having to enter just about every single game, every single year, needing to score five touchdowns-to sort of be in it. The offensive line was perhaps not the best unit on the team in 2004- but it was the most consistent- and ought to be a good, solid “professional” group again. They might not be designed to move the Bulldogs or Miners 3rd and short. But they can generate the consistent, mistake-free, accurate effort required to run the blizzard of formations and looks that a spread-style offense requires. They can get downfield to block the screens, get the ends on the ground to run the slants, etc. It is an outfit with good techniques- that maximizes its abilities by playing astutely. A spread offense naturally generates a lot of plays that net zero yards already- you don’t need the line increasing that number through mental errors and penalties.

That aside, it is hard to say overall the offense will clearly be better in 2005. There are questions at every skill position. First, there is no guarantee the passing game, particularly downfield, will be better with the loss of two NFL-quality players from the wide-out core. You know, Williams and Bush were good. Now, I know this is Tulane. Scelfo has proven he can spawn wide out talent. And again, the nature of the Wave “throw it forty times” offense almost guarantees two people on the edge by accident will catch fifty or so balls. But Williams and Bush were so important last season- and consistently got open every game but Louisville. Who on the roster can you point to and tell me will get open every single game but one?

I am little more okay with the backs after watching the team practice two weeks ago. Jovon is what he is- maybe an average C-USA player if you hand it to him, but who brings nothing to the air attack. Forte can certainly catch it- but a back who had 300 yards rushing last year, in games against teams other than Army and I-AA competition, is not a surefire plus. I wrote back in the spring on here that Ducre was the best player in the recruiting class- he looked it again when I was there in camp. Look for him to get every chance to supplant these two guys.

But you know, there is enough here on offense to win every single game on the schedule. If Ricard plays well.

That is the whole nut, right there. And certainly a lot of folks are on this “Ricard for the Unitas Award” kick. And I cannot bring myself to drink this Kool-Aid.

The guy was great, really great, in three starts last year: UAB, Navy and Army- and either hurt, bad or a scary turnover machine in the other seven I-A games. Ugh. And, no offense, Ricard plays in a league that frequently generates undeserved cartoon-like offensive numbers on occasion (see Forte versus Army)- so maybe a slightly jaundiced eye in needed toward players with occasional explosions.

But Ricard did prove that at home (or similar comfortable environment), facing a team unable (the Academies) or unwilling (UAB) to commit to pressuring him, with talented NFL-quality wide out talent to throw to, he was capable of amazing things. Take any of that away…. trouble and astonishing turnovers. In 2005, Ricard fortunately will play against a lot of teams that figure to be “comfortable” to play against- and I imagine he’ll be good-to-great in eight or so games, up from three. Unfortuantely, the games he’ll be bad in are the teams with quality defensive players: UTEP, USM, etc.- the ones Tulane probably needs great play from the quarterback position to win.

The defense… well, there are such a multitude of problems here. They were mostly really bad last year. They couldn’t stop the run, rush the passer, get off the field, play teams physically in the box or cover people. They ought to be better- a lot of people are back, more depth up front and there are some injured folks returning. But let’s say, for example, Tulane now allows 190 yards rushing per game? as opposed to 220? Who cares frankly? Tulane is still going to have to score five-six touchdowns to win games against the USMs & UTEPs of the league. And that is a conundrum.

Obviously, I don’t think this is all that great a Tulane club. They’d get handled by the Hawai’i Bowl group from a few years ago. A lot of the pre-Katarina optimism centered on the 5-win season in 2004. But that win total was not a “true” indicator of that team’s underlying talent. They won three games as big to monster underdogs (to their great credit!)- and added another over a I-AA team. To be honest, this team is probably building off a 2004 squad with the talent to have won two-three I-A games, not five. They were a little lucky- got some big performances in big spots from Ricard (UAB) and Irvin (TCU).

That is why all off-season I thought the Wave could be better- but perhaps not as lucky- and then accordingly win fewer games. I was stuck on five for a long time. I received a barrage of e-mails that suggested I was understating Tulane’s talent (not likely) & that the schedule was worse than I imagined. The latter were pretty convincing- and I then moved to six

Tulane is probably not going to have any true home games this year. But, you know, it isn’t like Tulane loses much there. Games played at neutral sites in front of what ought to be semi-friendly or respectful crowds is kinda what Tulane gets at the Dome anyway. Look, I know it is not a plus- but it isn’t a huge negative- as if Florida had to play its home SEC games in Giants’ Stadium.

I don’t think Tulane can beat UTEP or USM without the “big upset factor”; those teams are better than Tulane. I tend to think Navy, Mississippi State and Houston- particularly those latter games now away from the Dome- are a little better than Tulane. But the Wave is not bad enough to get swept by that slate either. So that is 1-4.

They ought to be better than the five I-A teams left on the schedule- but again home games at neutral sites, a bad defense and potentially inconsistent quarterback situation probably means they lose one here. That squares the mark at 5-5, they crush SE Louisiana, and that gets’em to 6-5. And that is where I will hang my hat.