Nationally-ranked Tulane faces stiff test from South Alabama in season opener
Tulane football is finally back after a long offseason.
To call it long does not mean it was not good for the program.
Record-setting preseason ticket sales were a highlight, something that doesn’t exactly come as a shock after the Green Wave completed their historic turnaround last season.
To kick off 2023, the No. 23-ranked Green Wave will face stiff test from the visiting South Alabama Jaguars to open the season Saturday night. The matchup is the start of an early-season gauntlet that also includes an SEC force in Ole Miss and a potential redemption game at Southern Miss in the first three games.
However, Tulane is fully focused on the Sun Belt title contenders from Mobile.
“Very well coached team,” Green Wave head coach Willie Fritz said Tuesday. “They’re good in all three phases. Defensively, a really great run defense. They did an excellent job of not giving up plays in the run game, cancelling gaps. Offensively, they’ve got a veteran quarterback, a great tailback. Just a good overall offense. Run and pass effectively. Very aggressive in special teams. They had some punts returned for touchdowns… do a good job with their coverage units. Really good overall team, as you would expect from a team that won 10 games last year.”
South Alabama quarterback Carter Bradley knows his team has a golden opportunity to opens eyes around the country if they can knock off a Top 25 team on the road. The Jaguars do not expect to be overlooked, however.
“It’s a great opportunity for us and we understand that completely on this side. I feel like on their side of the ball, it’s not a trap game to them. It’s the first game and they’ve got to set the tone,” Bradley explained. “It’s going to be an unbelievable game. We look at our season last year, and it’s in the past, but you look at our first game and it was against Nicholls. But we could come out and maybe there are a couple errors here and there, we didn’t really start out great.”
Bradley stressed that South Alabama cannot afford any lapses against the reigning American Athletic Conference champions.
“This year, it’s a different case. It’s Tulane, they’re hot right now. They’ve got a great defense, some great transfers in. It’s one of those games where we’ve got to be mentally prepared for everything and we’ve got to be on our game from play one to that fourth quarter whistle goes out.
Like the Wave, the Jaguars head into this one having made history, though it’s not been talked about quite like Tulane’s recent accomplishments. South Alabama won 10 games last year, tying a program record while losing just one conference contest. Its only two losses on the season were by just five points combined.
There’s no reason to think USA cannot match or even better than mark. The Jags return 22 starters, as well eight All-Sun Belt players.
Among the South Alabama players to watch is Bradley, who finished last season with a 64.8% completion rate, 3,336 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Running back La’Damian Webb ran for 1,063 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2022. Yam Banks on the other side of the ball led the Sun Belt with six interceptions and 17 passes defended from his safety spot.
There’s a lot of the same and a lot of difference between the 2022 Tulane squad and the one that enters Saturday’s tilt. Crucial was the return of Fritz, who has brought Tulane to a level of success on the field and on the recruiting trail not seen for the program in decades.
Slade Nagle remains on the coaching staff as offensive playcaller with a new coordinator title. New defensive coordinator in Shiel Wood has received a lot of praise within the program throughout the offseason.
The Green Wave lost a good deal of talent due to graduation and the 2023 NFL Draft with the departure of their top two wideouts in Shae Wyatt and Duece Watts, running back Tyjae Spears and linebackers Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams, in addition to other key contributors.
Potential darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate Michael Pratt is back for a fourth season at quarterback. He has considerable talent at the wide receiver position to work with including Jha’quan Jackson, Lawrence Keys III and Chris Brazzell II. Tulane may take to the air more this season as a result.
While unproven to this point, Ashaad Clayton-Johnson and Iverson Celestine sit on top of the depth chart at running back. They will try to make up for the absence of Spears, the best offensive player in the ACC last season.
Fritz has also said he expects a lot from what he calls the best offensive line he has ever had at Tulane.
Defensively, cornerback Jarius Monroe as well as defensive linemen Darius Hodges and Patrick Jenkins will be impact players.
The point spread on the season opener is rather close and for good reason. South Alabama should be taken seriously nationally as one of the better Group of 5 squads that few talk about. I suspect this battle will remain tight until the final stages at Yulman Stadium.
It may not always be pretty but few opening games between quality teams are. Both the Green Wave and the Jaguars will be better thanks to the early challenge.
In the end, Tulane comes out on the right side of it, 38-31.
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Crissy Froyd is a sports reporter of roughly nine years who graduated from LSU and has spent time at USA TODAY SMG, NBC Sports and the Fan Nation network on Sports Illustrated. She specializes in quarterback analysis and covers the SEC and college football across the state of Louisiana in addition to working with several college quarterbacks across the nation.