After facing Oregon in a neutral site game to open the season, the Tigers return to the Plains for a home-opener against Tulane on Sept. 7.
In his third year with the program, head coach Willie Fritz led the Green Wave of Tulane to their first winning season since joining the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2014 and only the third winning season since 1999.
Capping off the year with an AutoNation Cure Bowl victory over the University of Louisiana to earn its seventh win, Tulane looks to head into 2019 with the chance to build off unfamiliar success.
The Green Wave has talent and while that talent isn’t at the level of a power five school, Tulane is seen as a sleeper in the AAC.
Tulane wasn’t great on offense last year. The team averaged 26.8 points per game, which ranked the Green Wave No. 8 (of 12) in the conference. Much of that struggle came through the passing game where the team ranked ninth in the conference.
After starting 2-5, LSU grad transfer Justin McMillan replaced incumbent starter Jonathan Banks under center. With McMillan, an athletic dual-threat quarterback, at the helm, Tulane was able to turn their season around and win five of their last six games.
McMillan registered 1,304 yards and 10 passing touchdowns to go along with 238 yards on the ground and five additional scores.
Entering his senior season, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback has the ability to be one of the better signal callers in the AAC. However, accuracy issues (51.3 percent in 2018) could hold the QB back.
Lining up beside McMillan is a pair of big, bruising senior running backs that could create problems for opposing defenses.
Coming to Tulane as a quarterback, 6-foot-1, 230-pound back Darius Bradwell broke onto the scene in 2018 with 1,134 yards and 11 TDs. Bradwell’s physical abilities led to being named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-AAC second team.
The Robin to Bradwell’s Batman is redshirt senior Corey Dauphine. An explosive runner with solid size (6-foot, 200 pounds), Dauphine recorded 785 rushing yards on 6.3 yards per carry as well as seven touchdowns
The wide receiver position will likely be a bit of a question mark for the Green Wave.
After losing No. 2 WR Terren Encalade (727 yards and five TDs), Tulane will have to focus even more heavily on the team’s top receiver Darnell Moody
Moody was great in 2018, recording 48 catches for 993 yards and eight TDs. But, at just 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Moody’s lack of size may hinder him against stronger competition.
Behind Moody, Tulane recruited the services of Oklahoma State grad transfer wideout Jalen McCleskey. McCleskey had a productive four-year career in Stillwater, where he recorded a combined 1,865 yards and 17 TDs. Like Moody, McCleskey is undersized (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) but talented.
Other than those two, the Green Wave doesn’t return a single wideout who had over 100 yards receiving in the season. This lack of depth and size could spell trouble when Tulane faces off against bigger defenses.
Another area where a lack of size and experience may hurt Tulane is across the offensive line. Three starters from last year’s squad are now gone — a big hurdle for a unit that already had its fair share of struggles.
Tulane’s front five had trouble keeping opposing defenses out of the backfield. With the Green Wave allowing the third most sacks (35) and the second most tackles for loss (91), an SEC team like Auburn has the opportunity to dominate in the trenches.
Fifteen of the 18 offensive linemen on the roster are 300 pounds or lighter, and other than junior center Corey Dublin, who has started all 25 games of his career thus far, Tulane’s lack of linemen with starting experience will likely hurt them, especially early in the season.
Spearheaded by a strong defensive line, the Tulane defense comes into 2019 with the necessary pieces to be a top-three defense in the AAC.
Despite losing a trio of All-AAC defenders in LB Zachary Harris and CB Donnie Lewis and safety Roderic Teamer, the Green Wave have the talent to replicate a 2018 defense that registered a conference leading 41 sacks and ranked second in the AAC in rushing defense.
The Green Wave defense will be led by junior defensive end Patrick Johnson. Johnson, who was likely Tulane’s best player as a sophomore, registered an impressive 49 tackles, 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Johnson is a menace for opposing offenses. After becoming only the third player in program history to have double-digit sacks, he heads into 2019 as arguably the top defender in the AAC.
Alongside Johnson is sophomore nose tackle Jeffery Johnson, a former four-star recruit who spurned scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida and other big-name programs to join the Green Wave defense.
At 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, Johnson is hard to ignore. Despite only recording 30 tackles and one TFL as a true freshman, the nose tackle is a strong breakout candidate for 2019.
Senior linebacker Lawrence Moody is a preseason second team All-AAC selection, and after a 2018 campaign that saw him make 61 total tackles and eight for a loss the veteran should be a leader for the Green Wave defense.
Thakarius Keyes, a 6-foot-1 cornerback, should seamlessly take over as the team’s lockdown defensive back. The preseason third team All-AAC selection has excellent size and had 38 tackles and nine pass deflections in 2018.
Sophomore punter Ryan Wright is one of the best in the conference at his position, but Tulane’s special team ace is sophomore RB Amare Jones. Jones has game-changing speed and agility and despite being a freshman in 2018, ranked fifth in the NCAA in kickoff return average with 27.9 yards per attempt.
Tulane enjoyed its best season in a decade and half in 2018. Patrick Johnson is an NFL-level talent and the size and talent of the Green Wave running back duo should scare most opponents.
Tulane has legitimate questions across multiple position groups — most notably the offensive line and secondary.
Even if the Green Wave manage to be surprise contenders for the AAC crown, a more talented and bigger team like Auburn should have no problem overpowering them and taking care of business.