If you’re the Tulane football team, why think small?
While the surging Green Wave (4-5, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) can get within one victory of bowl eligibility by beating East Carolina (2-6, 0-5) on Saturday for homecoming, a much bigger prize looms on the horizon. If the Wave wins out, it will need only a little outside help to earn a spot in the AAC Championship Game.
No, seriously. A victory Saturday would send Tulane and coach Willie Fritz into a Nov. 15 Thursday night trip to Houston (7-2, 4-1) with a chance to grab a piece of the AAC West lead. Win there, and the Wave only would need to beat reeling Navy (2-7, 1-4) at home on Nov. 24 to guarantee at least a share of the division title.
That accomplishment would include an appearance in the AAC championship matchup as long as SMU (4-5, 3-2), which owns a tiebreaker on Tulane based on its head-to-head victory, loses one or more of its final three games. The Mustangs have a friendly schedule, traveling to hapless Connecticut (1-8, 0-5), hosting Memphis (5-4, 2-3) and playing at Tulsa (2-7, 1-4), but they are no lock to sweep the trio.
A title game or a postseason appearance of any kind felt unimaginable when Tulane blew a 9-point fourth-quarter lead and fell to 2-5 with its home loss to SMU on Oct. 20, but players and coaches spoke then about still having all of their preseason goals in front of them.
They turned that talk into a real possibility by beating Tulsa and blasting South Florida on the road the past two weeks.
“We’re playing with a lot of heart,” outside linebacker Patrick Johnson said. “We feel like we can win these games for sure, but right now we have to take care of ECU and not look over them because they are a good team and they have a lot of athletes.”
That is the party line, as well as it should be. Nothing ends a festive mood faster than a flat performance after a huge win, a Tulane specialty in the past. Even this year, the Wave lamented its energy level in a 37-21 loss at Cincinnati following a commanding 40-24 upset of preseason West favorite Memphis at home.
“Coach Fritz is doing a good job of talking about let’s not make this a habit,” Johnson said. “That’s why all of us came here to this program is to switch that habit. After big wins on the road, we have to carry on and get better.”
Tulane’s last three-game streak came in 2013, when it won four in a row on the way to the New Orleans Bowl. The first step to winning five consecutive games, which the Wave has not done since the perfect season of 1998, is to ignore what just happened in its 41-15 beatdown of South Florida.
“We have to understand we haven’t done anything at all,” Fritz said. “We need to continue to keep improving. We’re a very young team, and we’re all kind of learning how to win together and have that toughness you have to have in sports in order to be successful. We’ve had some really good weeks of prep these last few weeks, and we need to continue doing that.”
If not probable, the path to 6-2 in the AAC is possible.
East Carolina enters Saturday’s matchup with 18 losses in 21 conference games under third-year coach Scottie Montgomery. The Pirates, who played in eight bowls from 2005 to 2014, will stay home for the holidays for the fourth consecutive season.
Houston’s signature victory was 57-36 against then undefeated South Florida two weeks ago. Tulane topped that result on Saturday while the Cougars showed their vulnerability, losing 45-31 to SMU.
Navy, which has not won since Sept. 15, managed 171 yards of offense in a 42-0 shutout loss to Cincinnati on Saturday.
Winning two out of three will get Tulane to the Gasparilla Bowl or one of the other six lower-tier contests for AAC teams that finish .500 or better.
Winning all three might get them a date with undefeated Central Florida in Orlando for the conference championship.
“Winning changes everything,” said quarterback Justin McMillan, who improved to 2-0 as a starter against South Florida. “It’s easy to tell people to work harder and do the right thing, but when you start seeing the results as far as winning come out of it, you can see the excitement on each other’s faces. Winning definitely pushes and drives us a lot.”