With Ohio State thankfully in his rearview mirror, Tulane coach Willie Fritz faces the most significant game in his three-year tenure Friday against Memphis.
Turning Tulane into a winner is no easy task, and another lost season will beckon if the Green Wave cannot rebound from its frustrating 1-3 start and find a way to beat the defending American Athletic Conference West Division champion in its league opener.
After coming with an inch (or a blown official’s call) of reaching a bowl in the final game of 2017 against SMU, the Tulane coaches and players talked repeatedly this preseason about taking the next step and making sure their postseason possibilities did not hinge on one mistake.
Instead, they face a tough road to even get within range of the .500 record required to become bowl-eligible.
With all eight AAC games remaining, Tulane needs to finish at least 5-3 in them. If that sounds tough, consider the Wave’s 7-25 conference record since joining the league in 2014.
Heck, it has finished above .500 in any league only once since its perfect season in 1998, managing to go 5-3 in Conference USA five years ago on its way to the New Orleans Bowl.
The AAC is not Conference USA, but it is navigable, unlike Saturday's trip to Ohio State. The Wave was outmanned at virtually every position against the fourth-ranked Buckeyes, rendering the significance of the 49-6 loss on Saturday to avoiding injuries and trying not to get embarrassed.
“Like I told the kids, we’ve got to flush this thing down the toilet,” Fritz said. “We’ve got to move on. We’ve got conference beginning on Friday.”
Whether or not they still have confidence remains to be seen. While Tulane easily could be 3-1 right now, the reality is it deserves its 1-3 record to this point. Fritz’s No. 1 mantra is Wave don’t the Wave, but Tulane sabotaged itself with 83 penalty yards in an overtime opening loss to Wake Forest, including critical flags near the end of regulation and the start of overtime.
Quarterback Jonathan Banks turned the ball over three times at UAB, with one of his fumbles being returned for a touchdown. Cut out those mistakes, and Tulane probably would have won a game that was tied in the fourth quarter before the Blazers drove 93 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Wave can give itself a chance with a clean performance against Memphis, which lost to Navy in its AAC opener. Banks has a pair of top notch receivers at his disposal in Darnell Mooney and Terren Encalade, who both made big plays at Ohio State. Running back Darius Bradwell is running with authority, and backup Corey Dauphine now has five jaunts of at least 35 yards after adding another against the Buckeyes.
The defense, carved up by Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, will be happy never to see anyone like him again this year.
Beat Memphis, and Tulane will revive hope that a turnaround is possible.
Lose, and that hope will all but disappear for at least another year.