USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Tulane's enough moment, according to third-year coach Curtis Johnson, came in last September's 41-39 loss to South Alabama.
It was a seesaw affair: Tulane trailed 28-7 a minute into the second quarter, stormed back to 28-19 but allowed a late field goal to head into the half at 31-19; the Green Wave opened the second half with two scores to take a 33-31 lead but wobbled in the fourth quarter, eventually losing 43-39.
Close but no cigar. A morale-building defeat. One to build on.
Not really. Enough was enough, Tulane said.
"I think that was the single most defining thing that happened, the loss to South Alabama," Johnson said last November. "I thought our players, that's when they decided to say, 'You know what, here it is. It's on us. This is what we've got to do.' And they began to do it from there."
Tulane would win five of its next six, including four in a row – three against bowl-eligible opponents – to secure a postseason berth, the program's first since 2002, by the end of October. The Green Wave didn't just have a lights-on season; the Green Wave finally found the on-off switch.
"You look on the sidelines, it's almost like you're looking at guys who really believe they're going to win," Johnson said. "No matter what happens, they're going to win. And then to win, to not have won over the years and then to win in pressure-packed situations like that, really my hat goes off to those kids."
The road to a repeat is about to hit tougher sledding: Tulane's 2014 slate includes two foes from the ACC, one from the Big Ten, one fresh off a BCS bowl win and two new conference opponents coming off a combined 17 victories. It won't get easier. But that's not new to Tulane.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The Green Wave might start strong and end on a high note, but the meat of this schedule, the stretch from mid-September through November, ensures another season on the lower tier of Conference USA. In addition, can a team that is simply unable to win on the road take advantage of late-season road games against Florida Atlantic and UTSA? The rebuilding process continues unabated, with Johnson's foot firmly on the pedal, but the Green Wave are not yet ready to take the next step.
In a nutshell: Sealing the deal in close games propelled Tulane to the postseason. After South Alabama – that four-point, season-changing loss – the Green Wave won its next four games by single digits. The magic ran out after October, when Tulane dropped narrow games to UTSA, Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette, but credit Johnson and his staff for quickly strengthening the Green Wave's mental resolve. The mental edge was needed: Tulane was predictable on offense – gaining more than 400 yards only once – and prone to lags defensively, though that side of the ball was vastly improved from Johnson's debut season. Bu to continue this run in the American Athletic Conference, the Green Wave do need to get more from this offense.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: A 14-7 win against Tulsa on Oct. 26 secured bowl eligibility. But the most impressive win came the week prior, when the Green Wave topped East Carolina 36-33 in overtime.
Low point: Tulane might have left two or three wins on the field. One was South Alabama, as noted. The Green Wave also lost by three points to UTSA, four points to Rice and three points to the Ragin' Cajuns.
Tidbit: Curtis Johnson is New Orleans born and made, so it's no surprise that he's excelled at reaching the area's best second-tier recruits – and LSU can't sign 'em all, so there's plenty of talent in this state to go around. Twenty of Tulane's 23 recruits in February were from Louisiana; the remaining threesome hailed from Florida and Georgia. Here's the blueprint: Tulane wants to load its Louisiana-based program with Louisianans. Simple yet totally brilliant.
Tidbit (big win edition): Tulane's win against East Carolina was its first against an eventual 10-win team since beating Hawaii (10-4) on Dec. 25, 2002.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Two-star recruits since 2002
1. Case Keenum, Houston
2. J.J. Watt, Central Michigan (Wisconsin)
3. Eric Weddle, Utah
4. B.J. Raji, Boston College
5. Jerry Hughes, TCU
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The Green Wave simply must become more productive, consistent and explosive on offense to keep pace with opponents like Georgia Tech, Duke, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston. One clear positive: Tulane's returning core – five players back in starting roles – adds another year of experience, with this continuity aiding the staff's quest for consistency. The negative, however: Tulane is going to struggle replacing running back Orleans Darkwa and wide receiver Ryan Grant, the two water-carrying focal points of last year's attack. If the Green Wave struggle in this personnel transition, you wonder if this team can match the beefed-up schedule with a plodding offense.
Darkwa's greatest asset might have been his reliability. Without the four-year starter taking charge – and with senior Rob Kelley (420 yards) sidelined with academic issues – Tulane will hand the ground game to junior Josh Rounds (163 yards) and redshirt freshman Sherman Badie, with Badie the leader coming out of spring drills. If Kelley doesn't return, the combination of Rounds and Badie is extremely concerning: Tulane must land every-down production on the ground to help ease a new full-time starter into the mix at quarterback, and neither option inspires huge confidence. But let's say one thing: Johnson loves Badie. That counts for something.
A similar issue exists at wide receiver. Grant wasn't just Tulane's biggest threat; he was the Green Wave's only threat, accounting as a senior for 35.1% of the team's receptions, 43.3% of its receiving yards and 47.4% of its touchdown grabs. What's worrisome is that replacing Grant might not be the biggest issue: Tulane desperately needs tight ends for this offense to work – whether as receivers or blockers – and had nothing to work with during the spring. A return to full health and four incoming recruits will help, but Tulane's passing game is dinged on multiple fronts. In terms of supplanting Grant, look for the Green Wave to lean heavily on seniors Justyn Shackleford (36 receptions for 419 yards) and Xavier Rush (17 for 196) and sophomores Devon Breaux and Kedrick Banks. It's not a good group.
Given the issues at quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end, it's a good thing Tulane returns a solid core along the offensive front. Don't let the three returning starters fool you: Tulane has a very nice plan in place for each position, with several former reserves – with a taste of starting experience – set to step into larger roles. First, what we know: Sean Donnelly will start at right tackle and Arturo Uzdavinis at tackle. At center, Tulane will move sophomore Nathan Shienle inside from left guard to replace Zach Morgan. At guard, the Green Wave have sophomores Colton Hanson and Chris Taylor, two nice prospects. Unlike elsewhere, the line inspires some confidence.
Defense: It's on this defense to carry the Green Wave while the offense round into form – and to do so without six starters, including four pieces of the front six. But there's an issue with depth: Tulane was so hampered by injuries at positions like linebacker that Johnson opted to cut spring drills two days short rather than progress through a traditional end-of-spring scrimmage. The combination of youth and a lack of depth is a major concern at linebacker, which lost six contributors from a season ago. What Tulane simply needs to get healthy: Nico Marley – very promising – and fellow sophomores Edward Williams and Sergio Medina must be ready to go come fall camp.
If every option is available, Tulane can trot out a linebacker rotation of Marley, Medina, Williams, sophomore Eric Thomas and senior Matthew Bailey. The issue? Johnson has recruited well here, but the youth is troubling. The line is in better shape even as the Green Wave search for new starters at tackle. They won't have to look far: Tulane can replace Chris Davenport and Julius Warmsley with junior Corey Redwine, senior Kenny Welcome and sophomores Tanzel Smart and Calvin Thomas, perhaps not missing a beat – and I think Tulane would be happy with a similar performance up front. The Green Wave do need more production at end, to be fair, but Royce LaFrance (26 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and senior Tyler Gilbert are steady in the starting lineup.
I don't see any slide from the secondary even as the Green Wave replace three primary pieces: Jordan Sullen and Jordan Batiste and Derrick Strozier at hybrid safety. The reasons for optimism? One, I like sophomore Jarrod Franklin's potential as Strozier's replacement, even if he'll hit a temporary speed bump in the move to the starting lineup. Two, former Memphis transfer Taurean Nixon isn't just a good addition but a great one, and I think could end up being the Green Wave's best defensive back at some point this season. Three, Tulane also brings back cornerback Lorenzo Doss (32 tackles, seven interceptions) and safeties Sam Scofield (94 tackles) and Darion Monroe, three very nice pieces. And four, Tulane has eight sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen ready to slide into the mix. Tulane's numbers against the pass may decline should the interior of the line fail to stop the run, but this secondary is better than it was a year ago.
Special teams: Even if he struggled at times as a senior, Tulane will miss Cairo Santos, a former All-American and the finest kicker in school history – one who excelled on kickoffs more than field goals, perhaps. He'll be replaced by either junior Steven Broccoli or freshman Andrew DiRocco, with that competition set to resume in August. Punter Peter Picerelli returns, as do Banks, Dante Butler and Devin Boutte as returners, so Tulane should land similar production.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: The Green Wave seem poised for a change under center. One change seen by the end of spring drills: Nick Montana, last year's primary starter, enters the summer ranked third on the depth chart. If somewhat surprising – he was the main guy last fall, if unreliable – Montana's change in fortune signals Johnson's willingness to roll the dice with a youngster, not to mention his desire to gain a touch more athleticism at the position. While Montana remains an option, Tulane has centered its search on sophomore Devin Powell and redshirt freshman Tanner Lee, who share co-billing on the post-spring depth chart. Thrown into the mix midway through last season, Powell responded capably, leading the Green Wave to wins in his two regular-season starts despite predictable issues with turnovers. Lee comes with strong credentials – he was ranked a three-star recruit by each major service – but similar questions: Tulane might love his potential, but Lee's lack of experience should be viewed as a negative. I can still see the draw of giving the redshirt freshman a shot at starting the opener – and I still think he's the starter. The Green Wave will have the luxury of handing true freshman Glen Cuiellette a redshirt.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Tulsa: With Georgia Tech, Duke and Rutgers coming in non-conference play, it's vital the Green Wave get off on the right foot in the opener against the Golden Hurricane. It's a nasty schedule, relatively speaking: Tulane gets that Big Five trio in September and UCF, Cincinnati and Houston in a three-game midseason span. The Green Wave also take on the Knights, Cougars and East Carolina on the road.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Due to youth, a lack of depth, a questionable offense and a difficult schedule, Tulane is set to take a step back in 2014. The first issue is clear: Tulane should eventually start just six or seven seniors, only one on either line; should start a redshirt freshman, Lee, at quarterback; could start a redshirt freshman at running back; has three sophomores starting up front; and is all sophomores at linebacker. Say what you will about Johnson's recruiting efforts and recent feats in player development – and we could rave for a paragraph or two – but this youth is not conducive to success against an upgraded schedule.
And this is absolutely a tougher slate even if several American foes come over from Conference USA. This program is not the program of old, but let's remember: Tulane is 3-23 during the last five years – with two of those victories, Tulsa and ECU, coming in 2013 – against teams currently in the American or a Big Five conference. Of this year's schedule, only one game comes against an opponent not in one of those two categories. It's hard not to admire the young talent on this roster, but this group will need some time to catch up with the heightened level of competition.
The offense is a third concern. Starting Lee might be the right move, but the Green Wave must be willing to ride through his early learning curve. The backfield is going to miss Darkwa's reliability on the ground. Replacing Grant with a single receiver is a pipe dream; Tulane would be lucky to match his production with a handful of returning receivers. The offensive line is sturdy on the edges but fairly young inside, as noted. In total, I see a team still moving in the right direction even if the win column suggests otherwise. But I think the Green Wave finish in the bottom three in the America.
Dream season: Tulane matches last year's seven-win total despite the stronger schedule.
Nightmare season: The Green Wave slide back to 2-10.
Who's No. 108? One of this university's many ex-athletes twice finished in the top 22 of Major League Baseball's MVP voting.