Tulane will be hard pressed to top last season's history-making turnaround that became one of the most compelling, feel-good stories in college football.
If the Green Wave repeat as American Athletic Conference champions and return to a New Years Six bowl game, it will be considerably less surprising. Nonetheless, it would represent a notable accomplishment for a program that, for most of the past few decades, has been much more accustomed to disappointment than rapture.
No. 24 Tulane enters this season as the only team from a mid-major conference ranked in the AP Top 25. And with quarterback Michael Pratt returning for a fourth season, the Green Wave is the favorite to win the expanded, new-look AAC.
Tulane coach Willie Fritz doesn't want to entirely dismiss the hype — or the first preseason Top 25 ranking in program history. After all, it amounts to newfound respect for a team pegged to finish last in the AAC preseason poll only a year ago.
“It means something for our program," Fritz said. "It’s a great deal for us, but obviously the big deal is being ranked at the end.”
The AAC lost three of its stronger programs in recent years when Cincinnati, Houston and 2022 runner-up UCF left for the Big 12 after last season. But it’s hardly devoid of challengers.
Some of the AAC’s six new members (UAB, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and UTSA, all from Conference USA) have the potential to contend right away.
UTSA, which has gone 23-5 during the past two seasons combined and won the past two Conference USA titles, has prolific dual-threat QB Frank Harris back behind center. Florida Atlantic fell one victory short of bowl eligibility last season and now is led by former Texas coach Tom Herman.
The Green Wave went 2-10 in 2021, when its season unraveled after the team was forced to flee Hurricane Ida and relocate for a month to Birmingham, Alabama.
Tulane rebounded dramatically with a 12-2 record last season — an unprecedented 10-victory improvement in the NCAA's top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision. The Wave tied its school record for victories in a season (set with a 12-0 mark in 1998) with a dramatic comeback over USC in the Cotton Bowl — Tulane's most prestigious bowl appearance since its 1939 squad lost in the Sugar Bowl.
The spoils that followed included a ride as honored guests in a Mardi Gras parade. Pratt said he hopes the spike in adulation was "really motivating for everybody, knowing what we can accomplish when we put the work in.”
Tulane lost several top contributors to the NFL after last season: dynamic running back Tyjae Spears, and linebackers Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson. But the Wave has experience returning to offensive and defensive lines that are seen as the team's biggest strengths.
Fritz said his offensive line is the best he's had at Tulane. Pratt added that Tulane's experience up front on both sides of the ball will ease the transition for less experienced skill players stepping into more prominent roles.
“When you have good trenches,” Pratt said, “you always have a chance to be really good.”
Offense: UTSA's Harris (4,063 yards and 32 TDs passing, 602 yards rushing in 2022) and Tulane's Pratt (3,009 yards and 27 TDs passing, 478 yards and 10 TDs rushing) are the league's top returning QBs. Two of the league's more notable receivers played in Conference USA last season: UTSA's Joshua Cephus (87 catches, 985 yards, 6 TDs) and Rice's Luke McCaffrey (58 catches, 723 yards, 6 TDs), the younger brother of NFL star Christian McCaffrey. FAU running back Larry McCammon (1,004 yards, 7 TDs), who also thrived in Conference USA last season, is expected to be one of his new league's top rushers.
Defense: Temple outside linebacker Layton Jordan (9 sacks, 18 1/2 TFL, 2 INT, 3 defensive TDs in 2022) was one of the AAC's top play makers last season; UTSA's Trey Moore (8 sacks) and North Texas's Mazin Richards (7 1/2 sacks) are edge rushers to watch. Interior defensive line standouts include Tulane's Patrick Jenkins (3 sacks), North Texas' Roderick Brown (4 sacks) and UAB's Fish McWilliams (5 1/2 TFL). Tulane cornerback Jarius Monroe (3 INT) and Tulsa safety Kendarin Ray (3 FF, 1 INT) are leaders in their respective secondaries. Navy linebacker Colin Ramos (4 sacks, 2 FF, 1 INT) aims to build on a productive 2022.
The AAC is heading into its first season with 14 teams. It will remain without divisions and play eight league opponents per season in a scheduling model that has been approved by conference athletic directors for four seasons (2023-26). As before, top two teams in the regular-season standings will meet in the conference championship game, with the top team hosting.
Perceptions about the strength of the AAC will hinge in no small part on the result of preseason No. 22 Mississippi's visit to Tulane on Sept. 9.
Other games of note include: Navy vs. No. 13 Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 26; Tulane at Memphis on Oct. 13; UTSA at FAU on Oct. 21; SMU at North Texas on Nov. 10; Tulane at FAU on Nov. 18; and UTSA at Tulane on Nov. 24 or Nov. 25 (TBA).
Tulane, UTSA, SMU, FAU, Memphis, East Carolina, Navy, North Texas, UAB, Rice, Temple, Tulsa, USF, Charlotte.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll