The identity of the Tulane Green Wave changed in a major way in 2016. No, they didn’t suddenly become a team that piled up wins, but they did adhere to strict philosophies under new head coach Willie Fritz which will shape the future of the program. For fans in New Orleans, ideally that future will come with victories.
In 2016, four wins was a very slight improvement over the previous two seasons, when the Green Wave went 6-18 combined. However, that improvement came mostly because of weak non-league foes, not because Tulane was competitive in the American Athletic Conference. After playing one of the most boring season openers in recent memory against Wake Forest, the Green Wave won three of four games, knocking off such powerhouses as Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette and UMass. They then lost six-straight league contests before winning their lone AAC game of the season with a 38-13 rout of UConn in the season finale.
With the team now developing on top of the system Fritz brought in, rather than learning it from scratch, Tulane has a chance to actually avoid such futility, but this is a situation where you should see it before you believe it.
What They Do Well
Tulane went from being the second-worst rushing team in the AAC to the third-best in one year under Fritz. That’s what the former Georgia Southern head coach brings to the table. He employs a run-heavy style that makes Tulane a real challenger to Navy as the team with the most old school and rush reliant offensive game plan. Piling up 261.7 yards per game on 51.2 carries made it clear that Tulane wanted to get yards on the ground more than anything else.
By keeping the ball firmly tucked inside the arms of its ball carriers and making sure opponent didn’t do the same, Tulane did a good job of avoiding turnovers. It lost the third-fewest giveaways in the conference (18) and tied with USF for the best turnover margin among league members (+9). It also ranked first in the conference in fumbles recovered (15) despite forcing only 19. That’s a virtually impossible feat to repeat, but the care with which the Green Wave handles the ball should continue.
Fritz also managed to make improvements on defense, as Tulane ranked third in the conference in yards allowed per game (364.5) and among the top 50 teams in the country in defensive S&P+ (27.1).
What They Don’t Do Well
Here’s where all the bad news rains down. Tulane’s rushing offense might have been good, but it didn’t make it a very good offensive team overall. The Green Wave ranked No. 121 in the country in offensive S&P+ because they could not sustain drives or score enough. No team in the country was worse at converting on third down, as they had just a 27.8 percent success rate. In the red zone, Tulane did OK, scoring touchdowns on just under 60 percent of its chances, but ranking third-worst in the conference in red zone tries meant that already iffy success rate hurt all the more. Tulane also failed on special teams, ranking No. 117 in the country in special teams S&P+.
Players to Watch
Dontrell Hilliard, RB
One of the best rushers in the conference, Hilliard should thrive even more than he did last year when he rushed for a career-high 759 yards and nine touchdowns on 135 carries.
Terren Encalade, WR
Although passing is still very clearly the second choice on offense, Encalade can make plays pretty well. He had 500 yards and six scores on 36 receptions in 2016.
Ade Aruna, DE
With defensive difference makers Tanzel Smart and Nico Marley gone, Aruna will need to anchor the team from up front. He had a solid 2016 campaign, with 10 tackles for loss, including 5.0 sacks.
Parry Nickerson, CB
The redshirt senior is coming off a strong year in which he led the team with four interceptions and nine passes defended. Nickerson has 10 career interceptions, but he didn’t have any in 2015 after grabbing six in 2014.
Do They Play Cincinnati?
A rather tough slate of games for Tulane does include a test at home against the Bearcats. The two squads did not match up last season. The former Conference USA brethren met for the first and only time as AAC rivals in 2014 and Cincinnati won 38-14.
That aforementioned difficult schedule will hurt Fritz’s chances at a two-year turnaround. Facing Navy and Oklahoma on the road in back-to-back games after an opener against Grambling State will likely leave Fritz and company battered as the season kicks into gear. However, with more experience at his disposal, and with a clear vision for success, expect an uptick in wins in the second half that will leave the Green Wave just short of a bowl bid, instead of making winter plans before November. That’s right, let’s say 5-7 with an upset thrown in there.