Say this for Tulane coach Curtis Johnson: He’s all-in.
All-in on his coaching staff despite a 3-9 record last season and finishing 114th nationally in total offense, 55th in total defense and last in special teams.
All-in on his offensive and defensive schemes. Not much has changed there.
All-in on his returning players. The depth chart is pretty much a promotion from where things stood a year ago.
All-in on his recruiting philosophy, which has so narrowed the Green Wave’s range that, of the 17 incoming freshman signees, 13 are from Louisiana and the other four are from Florida. Of Johnson’s 83 signees in his four years, 63 — or 76 percent — are from Louisiana.
And all-in on his belief that, despite the loss of momentum from the opening of Yulman Stadium in 2014, surprisingly making a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade the year before and the school moving to the American Athletic Conference, the program is headed for good things going into his fourth season.
“I’m feeling really good about this team,” Johnson said in his usual unshakable, upbeat public persona. “We had a bunch of young kids who had to play last year, and they have really taken ownership of things. I have confidence in our coaching staff on both sides of the ball. And I feel that our recruiting is paying off because the level of talent we’re signing has increased every year we’ve been here.”
For Johnson’s sake, his confidence needs to pay off.
He’s going into his fourth season with a record of 12-25, but that includes a 3-13 mark in the last 16 games against FBS opponents.
And while Tulane has traditionally been patient with its coaches — Buddy Teevens and Bob Toledo both got fifth years that ended a collective 4-20 — there’s a sense that finally the bar has been raised.
No longer are you hearing excuses about lack of facilities or other misfortunes such as Katrina.
“Our expectation is to win championships,” Rich Schmidt, chairman of the athletics committee of the Tulane Board of Trustees, said a year ago.
Schmidt didn’t put a timetable on such an accomplishment, but obviously the expectation from the school’s decision-makers is tangible progress toward that goal — or at least it should be. That seems to be at least a 6-6 record, which would mean bowl-eligibility.
How anything less would be judged remains to be seen.
Last season was expected to be a step back, especially with redshirt freshman Tanner Lee being inserted as the starting quarterback. But it was the way the team regressed that was disheartening.
There were more than a few times when Tulane was painfully inept on offense, made several time-management miscues and was abysmal on special teams.
Frankly, much of the time the Wave did not look like a well-coached team. And at most schools, that’s an unacceptable situation.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason fired both of his coordinators after just one season. At AAC foe South Florida, Willie Taggart did the same after two years.
But Johnson stood pat, although two assistants did leave on their own for other jobs.
“I put (offensive coordinator Eric Price) in a difficult position last year by limiting the offense, and we didn’t play as well as we needed to in a lot of situations,” Johnson said. “But with more maturity and the adjustments we’ve made, you’re going to see progress.”
That’s a must. The AAC is on the upswing — particularly in the Western Division, where Navy is now an annual foe, and three schools (Houston, SMU and Tulsa) made well-received coaching changes.
The schedule does the Wave no favors, either. Starting with the opener at home against Duke (9-4 last season, including a 47-13 victory against Tulane), the Wave’s first seven FBS opponents were bowl-eligible in 2014.
Only in November do things lighten up: four games against teams that were a collective 9-39 last year. And by then, it may be too late.
“The first game is always the tone-setter for the year,” senior safety Darion Monroe said. “Two years ago, we beat Jackson State and went to a bowl game. Last year, we lost to Tulsa (31-28 in double overtime), and the rest of the season seemed to go that way, too. You always look back at those you let slip away, and that one made a big difference.”
The Wave is a 10-point underdog for the opener, and the Bovada Sportsbook’s victory projection for the season is 4.5.
Tulane was picked fourth in its division, and the consensus media projection is eighth in the 12-team league.
At least that’s better than the predicted tie for ninth in the 11-team AAC of 2014. The Wave finished tied for eighth.
“We know every game is crucial for us,” Johnson said. “We want to win. We want to go to a bowl game, and if things go right, maybe we can play for the championship. We’re going to surprise some people. I really think so.”
Spoken like a man who’s all-in. But he may not have a winning hand.