Lewis: Tulane has long way to go in ever-improving AAC _lowres

Temple's Robby Anderson catches a pass for a touchdown as Tulane's Parry Nickerson defends on a first-quarter play Oct. 10, 2015, In Philadelphia. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Philadelphia Inquirer)

So now we know that Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee was playing from some point in the first half on with a concussion and that a bizarre call early in the third quarter that proved “devastating” to the team’s already fragile psyche were major factors in the Green Wave’s 49-10 loss to Temple.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, as the season reaches its halfway point Friday when No. 24 Houston comes to Yulman Stadium, Tulane has a long way to go toward being competitive in a rapidly improving American Athletic Conference.

How rapidly?

Houston and Memphis are both in the Top 25. The Tigers are No. 22 in the coaches poll. Temple, undefeated like the other two, is just outside in both. Navy, which was undefeated until losing to Notre Dame last week, is also receiving votes.

Not bad for a league that, when the season began, had only Central Florida and Cincinnati getting any support,

Maybe that’s because the AAC is in only its third year of existence, the first with a full complement of 12 teams.

Nothing brings recognition faster than winning. So far, the AAC is 6-12 against Power Five foes (vs. 3-21 last year) and 11-2 against teams from the other Group of Five conferences (vs. 8-12 in 2014).

“Just going to the meetings this spring and summer and looking around the room at the other coaches, I can see the commitment the schools in this league have made for football,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Tuberville’s feelings were reconfirmed earlier this season when his team, the league’s preseason favorite, lost to both Temple and Memphis.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the best teams in our league and the Power Five schools except for maybe about 10 teams,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s a touchdown’s worth of difference between most of the teams in this league week in and week out.”

Well, that probably excludes Tulane, unless the Wave can come up with a major upset Friday, and winless UCF, where the wheels have come off.

Expect Knights coach George O’Leary, who gave up his title as interim athletic director Monday following a 40-13 debacle against UConn, to be gone by the season’s end.

But also don’t expect a school with the resources of UCF to limit itself when it comes to hiring its next coach.

Meanwhile, there’s unprecedented excitement at Temple and Memphis.

The Owls, once so downtrodden they were kicked out of the Big East for not being competitive (18 straight losing seasons between 1991 and 2008) already have their first victory against Penn State in 74 years and an Oct. 31 home game against Notre Dame coming up.

Saturday’s game against Tulane drew 35,179 fans to Lincoln Financial Field.

And nowhere is there more excitement than at Memphis, where the basketball team is usually the only thing worth bragging about. The Tigers host No. 13 Ole Miss on Saturday in their most-anticipated game in decades.

“When I came to work this morning, I saw students lined up to get their tickets,” Memphis coach Justin Fuente said during Monday’s AAC teleconference.

“We want to be a tangible program in our community, and filling our stadium on Saturday and then winning is the best way to do it.”

Even two of the AAC’s downtrodden programs are talking about getting better.

SMU is 1-5, but scored 21, 37 and 28 against unbeatens Baylor, TCU and Houston, respectively.

“I’m not into moral victories because we’re kind of dug into a bunker here,” first-year SMU coach Chad Morris. “It’s about bottom line results.”

Added first-year Tulsa coach Phillip Montgomery, whose team’s three victories are one more than the Hurricane had last season, “We’re a blue-collar team that’s out here grinding away.

“We’ve faced some adversity, but our guys have handled it well and we’re finding ways to win. I really feel like we’re on the right track.”

Tulane plays SMU and Tulsa in the season’s final two games.

Before that, the Wave has to face Houston.

Last year, the school fired Tony Levine after just three seasons despite the Cougars winning eight games in each of the past two.

New coach Tom Herman, the former offensive coordinator at Ohio State, is so hot that his name is already atop the list of candidates at South Carolina.

That’s what setting your expectation level high means, especially at a school which has won only two conference titles in football and men’s basketball in the past 25 years.

“Our goal is to compete for championships in the months of November and December,” Herman said. “That’s what our administration wants to see.

“Do we have to win it every year? I certainly hope not. But competing for it every year is a worthy goal.”

Of course, just saying you’re expecting to win championships doesn’t automatically mean it will happen.

Football is a zero sum game and somebody has to be at the bottom of the standings. The folks at South Carolina and Auburn probably didn’t expect to be last in the SEC right now, but they are.

Tulane wasn’t expected to win the AAC football title this season. And barring a complete reversal of form, the Wave won’t.

Regardless of circumstances, the program took a step back last week at Temple.

At some point, the school’s decision-makers are going to have to determine if the pieces are in place for it to start moving forward again.