Not even a series of downer predictions from preseason magazines has affected Tulane’s upbeat attitude entering preseason football practice.
Summer is the time for unbridled optimism — every team in the country is undefeated — but with 16 starters returning, the Green Wave players and coaches clearly believe they will fool the forecasters in the fourth year of Curtis Johnson’s tenure, which begins when practice opens Wednesday.
Their consensus: The disappointing 3-9 record of 2014 was the product of too much inexperience.
“I feel much better than I’ve ever felt,” Johnson said. “Our athleticism has really increased. I don’t know if we’re ready to win every game, but just the experience from last year with everybody having 12 games under their belt, I’m just excited about competing in training camp and playing the games.”
That sentiment has not resonated outside of the Wilson Center. Every college football magazine picked Tulane fourth or fifth in the six-team American Athletic Conference Western Division, and most of them placed the Wave below 100th nationally out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Only USA Today sees a bowl game in the Wave’s future, predicting a 6-6 finish overall with a 4-4 mark in the AAC. The harshest words come from Harris’ College Football preview: “Anything more than four wins would be an overachievement.”
Recent history supports that. Tulane has gone 4-8 or worse in nine of the past 10 years, averaging 2.9 victories in that span aside from its 7-6 bowl breakthrough in 2013.
“The way we’ve been working in the offseason, the attitude has changed to where we expect to win,” said sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee, who threw five interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in a rough debut season as a starter. “There’s no more putting a jersey on and going out there and, if you win, you win, (and if) you lose, you lose. There’s really no more of that. We’re focusing on changing some things we’ve done wrong in the past and changing everyone’s attitude.”
There’s no question Tulane was very young last year as it made the transition from Conference USA to the tougher AAC and from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to on-campus Yulman Stadium. Lee, a redshirt freshman, was more experienced than four of his top six receivers, all of them true freshmen. The top three running backs were underclassmen, with redshirt freshman Sherman Badie and true freshman Dontrell Hilliard playing for the first time.
The defense had five freshman or sophomore starters, including two linemen and two linebackers. The youth extended to the kicking game, where freshman Andrew DiRocco struggled mightily on field goals.
“It was big to get that year of experience,” Lee said. “When we got back this summer, we said, ‘What happened last year is not going to cut it; we gotta make some strides.’ ”
Giant strides are more like it. Tulane had issues almost across the board, finishing 107th in total offense, 121st in scoring, 124th in kickoff returns, 114th in penalty yards and tied for 92nd in turnovers. The defense, though respectable, slipped to No. 55 from No. 22 in 2013.
Still, recent precedent makes the turnaround talk more reasonable. Tulane returns the same number of starters as it did in 2013. That year, the Wave won seven games despite being an underdog nine times.
“I can see this as the same as my sophomore year,” senior safety Darion Monroe said. “The same things are happening, and it looks like we’re going to have even a better year than that. I really don’t care about (preseason projections).”
Lee seconded that notion.
“We try not to read the national magazines,” he said. “We control our own program. We expect to win games. We expect to compete, and what everyone else writes doesn’t matter.”
Coming off its first bowl appearance in 11 years, Tulane was not ready for what hit it last season. The Wave was unfamiliar with the AAC and its new stadium. Preseason camp was trying because the team had to be bussed to and from Tad Gormley Stadium, Newman High or the Saints’ facility every day because Yulman Stadium was unavailable during final construction.
All of those distractions are gone.
“It’s a lot more comfortable and a lot easier pretty much in every sense all around the program,” Lee said. “There’s no more newness, no more not knowing what to expect. We know what we’re walking into. We know where we’re going to be. We know where we’re going to practice. There’s so much less unknown, and that’s big.”