NEWPORT, R.I. — Tulane’s initial season in the American Athletic Conference was a solid punch to the Green Wave’s collective jaw.
That metaphor may reflect why Tulane was 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference play, and why the team may fare better this season after absorbing that experience.
“I think we’ve adjusted a little bit to this new conference,” coach Curtis Johnson said Tuesday at the AAC’s football media day. “It’s much more physical than Conference USA. You look at Cincinnati, UConn, East Carolina, Houston and East Carolina just one week after another. They’re big. They’re fast. They’re physical. It’s a really good conference.
“We went through it once this past season. I think our team has adjusted by our playing all those young kids. They understand the venues and who we’re playing against.”
Commencing with the opening kickoff, Tulane plays two Power Five teams: Duke at Yulman Stadium and Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Ergo Tulane won’t spar with a pair of flyweights.
“You have to try to win the first game you play,” Johnson said. “I don’t look at it as if I’m playing against this conference or that conference. I look at it in terms of we have to be prepared to play Duke and beat them. Then we have to beat Georgia Tech.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what conference you are. We’ll play anybody. You have to prepare your team and win games.”
Moving from Conference USA to the AAC has enhanced Tulane’s profile and in the long run may enable Johnson to recruit more talented players and eventually earn a second bowl bid during his tenure.
“We have some kids from Atlanta. but we don’t have any from the Durham area,” Johnson said. “We’re getting some of the players we thought we couldn’t get. It gives you more exposure when you play these games at different venues.
“I love where we’re playing (Yulman Stadium). I love the exposure. I love the places where we’re going.”
Whatever love exists in the AAC isn’t directed toward Tulane.
The AAC coaches preseason poll ranks Tulane fourth in the West Division, Athlon Sports ranks Tulane fifth, and Sports Blog Nation ranks Tulane eighth overall.
This lack of respect doesn’t faze sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee.
“I think with the polls, we know what people think of us,” Lee said. “We have a big goal of proving these people wrong. The only thing that matters is what goes on in our locker room and what we can control.
“That’s our going out there and playing good football and winning games. Eventually, they’ll change their minds because they won’t have a choice.”
The supreme irony regarding Tulane is that while last season the team was young and inexperienced, now it’s young and experienced.
Johnson returns only 13 seniors. But 22 juniors and 29 sophomores saw extensive action, which could be a plus – especially becase nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters are back in uniform.
Included in this group besides Lee are junior rushing leader Sherman Badie and junior linebacker Nico Marley, who led Tulane in tackles.
“I think we have more experience,” Johnson said. “When you’re playing red-shirt freshmen, you’re a little scared about what they’re going to do the following year. But I think some of the mistakes they made last year they won’t make this year.
“They’re beginning to step up their game more.”