QUICK! Name the only G5 school Auburn has a losing record against in more than three games! The title probably gave it away, but that team is the Tulane Green Wave, who own a 17-14-6 record over your Auburn Tigers. Pay no mind that the two conference mates have only played once since 1965, when Tulane left the SEC in order to focus on academics. The last matchup – in 2006 between coaches Tommy Tuberville and Chris Scelfo’s squads – featured Matt Forte and Ben Tate trading big days on the ground on the way to a 38-13 Auburn win.
These days, Tulane, a door mat in the G5 for much of the last 50 years, is a program on the rise. With former Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz taking over in 2016, the program has improved it’s record each of the last three seasons.
Last year, Fritz’s third in New Orleans, the Green Wave snuck into a bowl game after beating Navy in the last week to go 6-6, and thumped Louisiana in the Cure Bowl to secure the program’s first bowl win in 16 years. Tulane’s biggest win cam via a 40-24 thumping of Memphis on a Friday night in New Orleans (with sweet uniforms!), but otherwise Tulane largely beat teams they were supposed to beat and lost to teams that were better than them.
Contrary to what you would expect from an option coach, Tulane’s offense was incredibly all-or-nothing last year, finishing 116th in efficiency and 11th in explosiveness, per S&P+. Bill C hits on it more in his preview, but the run game, which saw its top two ball carriers combine for nearly 2,000 yards, was all over the place when it came to yards per carry in each game. The snaps at quarterback were split down the middle between senior Jonathan Banks and LSU transfer and redshirt junior Justin McMillan, but neither one was consistently able to lead an effective offense – the team finished 106th in offensive S&P.
On the defensive side of the ball, things were much brighter. The Green Wave defense, much like the rushing attack, was all-or-nothing, ranking 23rd in efficiency while 109th in explosiveness. A strong secondary, led by 7th round Cleveland Brown pick Donnie Lewis Jr., held opponents to just a 52.3% completion rate. The defensive line was led by a trio of sophomores with a handful of freshmen backups, meaning all of that experience returns to an already strong unit.
McMillan, now a 5th year senior, returns at quarterback this year, but he will have competition in Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard. Howard didn’t play in that awful, rainy game against Auburn last year, so you don’t have to worry about your deleted memories of that night. McMillan was the better of the two Tulane quarterbacks last season, with a 10:4 TD:INT ratio and 1304 yards on 154 attempts. He had just a paltry 51% completion rate (Stidham was 61%, for comparisons sake), and ran for solid 315 yds (6.7 ypc, not including sacks) and 5 TDs. Howard isn’t quite as mobile of a signal caller, but he’s a pretty good backup for a team of Tulane’s level.
Tulane is going to get all of it’s rushing yards back save the approximately 250 yards from Johnathan Banks. Senior backs Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine are back to lead the charge for the nation’s 23rd best rushing offense, and with a full season of McMillan running the offense, I would expect Tulane to look more and more like Fritz’s option roots.
The team does their second, third, and fourth most productive receivers, but rising senior Darnell Mooney, the team’s leading receiver last year, is a stud. Mooney had 48 catches last year and came just 7 yards short of 1,000, good for over 20 yards per catch. He’s a small guy at only 5’11” 180 lbs, but he’s a terror to cover man-to-man. Though there’s not much returning besides Mooney at receiver, they do pick up Oklahoma State grad transfer Jalen McCleskey, who had a great 76% catch rate on 50 catches two years ago.
The line was the weak point of the offense last year, and they’re experiencing some turnover this year. Three of the five starters are gone, but the recruits have a decent pedigree, for G5 standards at least.
The defense only loses three starters from last year, but that trio (LB Zachery Harris, S Roderic Teamer Jr, and the aforementioned CB Donnie Lewis Jr.) includes three of the top four tacklers on the team. While two of those losses are in the secondary, defensive coordinator Jack Curtis was able to rotate a pretty large group last year, with seven defenders in the secondary recording at least 15 tackles.
The front seven, which loses 73 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, and 20.5 run stuffs from Harris, should still be a pretty strong unit. Rising junior Marvin Moody, already one of the top producers at linebacker last year, will look to take over Harris’s role, along with senior Lawrence Graham. The line, as mentioned before, is filled with returning talent. Junior Patrick Johnson led the team with 16.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks, good for 12th in the country! Another rising junior, nose-tackle De’Andre Williams, racked up nearly 30 tackles last year, a ton for a guy who’s job it is to take on double teams.
Match-Up with Auburn
Tulane, funnily enough, has a roster construction similar to Auburn’s. They’ll be replacing a quarterback (though McMillan started several games last year), return most of their production at running back, lost a few receivers but have one guy they love (Darnell Mooney and Seth Williams), and a defense that stocked with talent in the front seven. Talent wise, however, Auburn is on another plane. The Auburn defense especially should be able to impose it’s will on the Tulane offense. Mooney, the big play wide receiver, will likely match up with Noah Igbinoghene, a corner who is not only bigger than him but can keep up with him down the field, too. There aren’t many guys with Iggy’s skill set in the AAC.
While Auburn is on offense, the matchup I am most worried about is Patrick Johnson, the edge rusher who lived I opponent’s backfields last season. Whether he is going against Tega or Driscoll, there’s a good chance Johnson wins enough of those battles to cause problems for Auburn. Luckily, either quarterback Auburn may use is mobile enough to extend plays outside of the pocket, and Dillingham’s new offense may lean on that to offset Johnson in this game.
Again, Auburn should not have any trouble putting away this Tulane team. S&P+ projects them 98th in the country this year, and even if they are considerably better than that, Jordan-Hare Stadium on it’s opening should be rockin’ loud enough to launch the Tigers to a sizeable win.