When Tulane and Wake Forest play Thursday night at Yulman Stadium, the only similarity to their opener from two years ago will be the name of the opponent.
That 7-3 Demon Deacons victory in Winston Salem, North Carolina feels as if it were a lifetime ago for both programs.
Tulane, which did not have a quarterback who had thrown a pass in college football, was an unknown quantity in coach Willie Fritz’s first game. Coaches and players were still learning each other in a system that was a radical departure from former coach Curtis Johnson’s in almost every way possible.
Wake Forest, which was coming off seven consecutive sub-.500 seasons, appeared rudderless offensively under then third-year coach Dave Clawson. The Demon Deacons had not scored more than 24 points against an FBS foe since October of 2013, and their only ACC victory in 2015 had come 3-0 against Boston College.
Flash forward to Thursday, and Tulane is brimming with anticipation about a potentially potent offense behind talented senior quarterback Jonathan Banks. Wake Forest has gone to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2007 and 2008 and averaged 42 points in its past six games a year ago.
The score could be 7-3 after both teams have the ball once. It's almost unimaginable that it would be 7-3 into the fourth quarter.
“We’re a lot different than when we played them back in 2016 and they’re a lot different as well,” Fritz said. “We’re probably going to get 80 to 90 plays from them, and we feel we’re a lot better offensively right now than we were a couple of years ago, too.”
Tulane’s hopes ride with Banks, who blossomed at the end of 2017 after experiencing growing pains plus literal pain because of injuries in his transition from junior college to Division I football. He threw for 565 yards in the last two games, a stark contrast from the 280 total yards the Wave managed against Wake Forest two years ago (105 more than the Demon Deacons gained).
“My confidence was kind of wishy-washy at this time last year,” he said. “I didn’t know much of the playbook. This year I’m very confident. I know what I want to do with my reads, so I can just execute. I’m healthy and I’m ready to get going. We can be very multiple, running triple option, running the ball and throwing the ball out of multiple sets. I feel like we will surprise a lot of folks.”
Clawson does not count himself among the unsuspecting.
“Willie Fritz is one of the most underrated and one of the best coaches in the country,” he said. “From junior college to Division II to FCS to Georgia Southern, everywhere he goes, he wins. His teams play incredibly hard. They really outplayed us two years ago and should have beaten us, and they have a much better team this year.”
That applies to Wake Forest, too.
After sneaking into a bowl in 2016 despite losing five of its last six games, the Demon Deacons were the real deal last fall, beating Louisville and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson 42-32, blasting Syracuse 64-43 and outlasting No. 25 North Carolina State 30-24. They capped an 8-5 season with a wild 55-52 victory against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl, with the teams combining for more than 1,250 yards.
All five of their first-team offensive linemen return, including four fifth-year seniors. The group has combined for 122 career starts.
Leading rusher Matt Colburn (904 yards, 5.4 average) is back, too, along with top receiver Greg Dortch (53, catches, 722 yards, nine touchdowns). Although wideout Scott Washington (45 catches, 711 yards) is doubtful with a shoulder injury, Wake Forest has a dangerous supporting cast around true freshman quarterback Sam Hartman in a fast-paced offense that finished among the top 20 in plays per game last season.
Hartman lost a tight three-way competition for the starting spot in spring practice but won the job by default. Junior Kendall Hinton is suspended for the first three games and sophomore Jamie Newman got hurt in preseason camp.
“In today’s football, a true freshman (starting quarterback) is not that unusual anymore,” Clawson said. “There seems to be more and more popping up. The coaching these guys get in high school is better and better, and the fact we got him (Hartman) in January helped us, too.”
Hartman has a tough task following John Wolford, who completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns with six interceptions a year ago while rushing for 683 yards in a system with a run-pass option on every play.
Whether it is a manageable task remains to be seen.
“I'm hoping that with the lack of experience with the quarterback they are going to play, they can't do what they did last year, but the offense does test you,” Tulane defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “You are defending the run and pass on every play. They want to create space and get those receivers open. You've got to be very disciplined when you're in zone coverage not to come up too quick. It creates quite a challenge.”