Tulane team, program seem to have hit their ceiling
Tulane had a showcase opportunity Thursday night.
The Green Wave were playing host to Houston in an American Athletic Conference game in Yulman Stadium.
It was an opportunity to show that this team was better represented by taking then-No. 2 Oklahoma to the wire in its season opener than by the three consecutive losses that had followed.
It was an opportunity to show that this program, which has gone to bowl games after each of the last three seasons, is still ascending despite an unusually challenging early season schedule.
But Tulane didn’t take advantage of the opportunity as it lost to the Cougars, 40-22, and fell to 1-5 (its worst start in head coach Willie Fritz’s six seasons) and 0-2 in the American.
This performance demonstrated some improvement compared to the three straight losses (after a win over FCS Morgan State) that preceded it.
Tulane had been outscored 141-71 by Ole Miss, UAB and East Carolina and didn’t lead in any of those games.
It bottomed out in the 52-29 loss at East Carolina in its conference opener last Saturday.
Tulane, which fell behind 24-0, gave up 612 yards, including 310 rushing, to the Pirates and committed four turnovers, two of which led to touchdowns.
The Green Wave started slowly again Thursday, but didn’t face a massive deficit as they had in the early going against Ole Miss, UAB and East Carolina.
They fell behind 14-0, but didn’t allow this game to get out of hand the way those other games did.
In fact Tulane got within 17-15 at halftime and held a 22-17 lead in the third quarter before losing touch.
The game started to turn on a turnover, though the Wave defense stiffened, held Houston to a field goal and maintained a narrow lead.
But Tulane didn’t score again and the Cougars completed a 23-0 run to send the Wave into an open date realizing that their bowl streak is all but finished.
The impact of this moment – the context more than the actual result – has to be viewed in the bigger picture.
Houston recently accepted an invitation to join the Big XII Conference.
The most recent in a series of college football conference rearrangements was triggered by Oklahoma and Texas announcing during the summer their plans to leave the Big XII and join the SEC.
The Big XII responded almost immediately by filling its vacancies with independent BYU, Houston and fellow American members Cincinnati and UCF.
Tulane was not in that conversation – nor was it in any Power 5 realignment talks – and the American, the most significant conference home for the Green Wave since they left the SEC more than half a century ago, quickly went from being arguably the strongest non-Power 5 league to just another collection of mid-level programs.
The Cougars (5-1, 3-0) have won five games in a row and are rolling toward bigger and better things – not only this season but also when they join the Big XII in 2023.
They are where Tulane has long aspired to be and has inched toward in recent years.
The last decade has been pretty good for the Green Wave. They found a solid landing spot in the American in 2013, avoiding the wilderness in an earlier wave of conference realignment.
They returned from the wilderness of the Superdome to move into Yulman Stadium and play on campus for the first time in nearly 50 years.
The students came out in full force Thursday and the uptown venue is clearly the right fit for this program at this time.
In 2016 the Green Wave hired Fritz and he has had one of the best runs of any coach in recent school history.
Tulane has six more game to change the narrative around this season, though it returns from the open date to face a gauntlet against SMU, Cincinnati and UCF.
Even if this season doesn’t get any better, Fritz has a track record that suggests it might be an aberration rather than the start of a descent.
But on Thursday night, in front of a lot of empty seats against a rival poised to graduate to a bigger conference the Green Wave looked like a team and a program that might have reached a ceiling of average height.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…