Curtis Johnson is well aware of the challenges this season poses compared to the last, and he hopes his players are too.

The third-year head coach guided the Green Wave to a five-win improvement and a New Orleans Bowl berth from his first campaign to the next. When asked in his news conference during Tulane’s media day Thursday whether his team knows how difficult it will be to keep up the improvements with their imminent entrance into the American Athletic Conference, Johnson responded, “Absolutely. If they don’t, something’s wrong with them.”

Although an AAC panel recently picked the team to finish ninth in the conference, Johnson said he’s excited about the step up in competition.

“The game began to slow down, but now we’re in a new conference with new opponents,” Johnson said. “We’ve got nine new opponents on the schedule. … But new is good, because it puts a pep in our step, a spark. So new is good for us.”

While it’s not close to the prestige of conferences making up the “Power Five,” the AAC is certainly higher up the Division I hierarchy as evidenced by their respective most proficient teams of last season.

The best team of Tulane’s previous home conference was Rice, which defeated the Wave 17-13 en route to a slot in the conference championship. The Owls blew out East Division champion Marshall 41-24 to earn a trip to the Liberty Bowl. They lost that game to Mississippi State 44-7.

Central Florida, last season’s C-USA champion, bounced back from an early season loss to South Carolina to finish the regular season 11-1 and went on to upset No. 6 Baylor 52-42 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

“You just turn on the film, look at Central Florida and you see what they did,” Johnson said. “They lost one game, and have three 10-win seasons (in the past four years). You know Cincinnati is tough. We’ve got to go up to Connecticut and we’re going to play a team up there. You’ve got two schools in the state of Florida, and you look over in the state of Texas, there’s some quality football teams there. The players know it’s a step up in talent.”

Not sleeping on Southeastern

On top of their new, more challenging conference schedule, the non-conference slate features three teams from the ACC and Big Ten, prompting Johnson to feel especially relieved by the extension he received after Tulane’s first bowl game in more than a decade.

“Look at our non-conference schedule,” Johnson said. “If I wouldn’t have gotten a new contract, I would’ve thought they were trying to get rid of me with Georgia Tech, Duke and Rutgers.”

And even though he’s bracing for these Power 5 players, Johnson said the non-conference team looming largest could be Southeastern Louisiana, which ran the table in the Southland Conference last season with the help Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett, who orchestrated an offense that scored 38.4 points per game. In their first appearance in the FCS playoffs, they reached the quarterfinals before being ousted by New Hampshire 20-17.

“Southeastern might be the best of all of them,” Johnson said.

Add them all up, and it’s evident to Johnson that this season will be tougher than the last.

“This is one of those deals where you just wait and hope these young men get ready to play, because we’ve got to strap it on this year,” Johnson said.

No autonomy, no problem

Just before Johnson’s news conference, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors ruled that the aforementioned Power Five — the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC — would have more control over several issues, such as cost-of-attendance scholarships and sizes of coaching staffs.

Critics say this puts teams like Tulane at a competitive disadvantage, but Johnson downplayed the effect of the ruling. He used Connecticut basketball’s national championship sweep and UCF’s upset of Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl as evidence that they’ll be fine.

“All you have to do is continue to just play ball, recruit well and just win,” he said. “Winning solves everything. If we continue to win, we’ll see where it all ends up.”

The AAC released a statement following the announcement expressing the conference’s support of the NCAA Governance Redesign Model for its possible enhancement of student-athlete welfare. New Orleans media will get a chance to ask AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco about the change when he visits Tulane on Monday.

No more kisses

Now that Lorenzo Doss’ 12 interceptions in two years have landed the junior cornerback on several national award watch lists, it looks like Johnson made the right move by flipping Doss, a high school wide receiver, to the other side of the field as an incoming freshman.

Johnson said Doss didn’t much mind, but his parents did.

“They came down on me,” he said. “For about a half a year, they thought I was the dumbest coach in America.”

These days, the Dosses are quite a bit more affectionate toward the coach. Maybe too much, if you ask him.

“He’s on this, this and that list, he’s an All-American, now they kiss me every time they see me,” Johnson said. “I don’t want his dad to kiss me anymore.”