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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Tulane

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the interim.

The least you should know about Tulane...
2006 Record
4-8 (2-6 C-USA, Sixth/West)
Past Five Years
23-35 (13-27 C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
15 (6 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
RB Matt Forte was in the midst of his fifth straight 100-yard game - including 117 at Auburn; he had burned Mississippi State for 175 earlier in the season, too – when he injured a knee at Marshall in early November. The team rushing average was immediately cut in half, from 109 yards through the first nine games to a little more than 55 the rest of the month. Forte has three quality seasons but has not lasted in full-time duty in any of them.
Bizarre Tradition(s)
Both the school colors and mascot have always seemed to SMQ vague and problematic, but there are deeper long-term issues. If you lived in New Orleans, would you attend a Tulane football game? It’s not that Tulane’s fan base is so indifferent compared to similarly futile programs, but the Superdome seems specifically constructed to magnify and perpetuate the apathy of the most hollow gameday atmosphere in major college football, which for small time opponents is sometimes transferred to a local high school stadium. That dome is one empty, freezing, depressing edifice with thousands and thousands of empty seats, and a chilling facsimile of occasion that regularly includes both a basketball-style pep band in place of the larger marching unit and, most egregiously, a creepy inflatable mascot. The Wave will also be renewing its "rivalry" with LSU in September, against whom it is 4-42-2 since 1950.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
SMQ challenges the reader to remain conscious through the first dozen entries of the athletic Web site’s Signing Day blog , whose anonymous author triumphantly memoralizes the tedium of the non-event with a penchant for intricate detail that echoes Proust in its sublime digressions on pastry.

Think for a second of Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror before you turn on the light as a kid, and of that completely illogical terror that sends a shiver up your spine and momentarily freezes you in the doorway. Every experience you have in the world mocks your hesitation, assures you that this is a routine moment, like any other, a moment that adheres to science and your senses and all that you know to be true about the world, and that nothing out of the ordinary might actually occur. Always, somewhere inside, you know, somehow, it might.You would never admit to anyone your fear, maybe not even to yourself, but how ever long it lingers along the edge of the impossible, it never quite disappears.

In the nightmares of the insecure, there lies a loss to Tulane.
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As a partisan of a school that can almost count Tulane as a sorta de facto rival, grudgingly, when we think about it, SMQ can attest that there is no joy in beating Tulane. From a Conference USA perspective, there is only that relief when the light is on - the game is done, victory in hand - and of course Tulane was no match and the world remains in its recognizable order. Regardless of your experiences with Tulane in the past, there is that constant apprehension that the worst is possible. Because that actually happened, once, a long time ago, an undefeated season so weird it's almost a myth. The deal here is that, once in the career of every player who redshirts and hangs around Tulane long enough, the team manages to scrape together enough wins to deem itself mediocre, and no fate could be worse than victimhood on this path. This is what makes Tulane in many ways the most pitiful program in any sport SMQ can think of. Not pitiful in the sense that it's inept - though it almost invariably is - but that it's rarely so inept in its own way that it might reach that rarified level of complete, utter, hopeless futility, when the concept of defeat at its hands becomes too impossible even to manifest itself as a nagging doubt. No team with the slightest self respect can consider the possibility of losing to Tulane under normal circumstances, but only the biggest, baddest kids might dare deep down to actually laugh the Wave out of the stadium before the deed is done without risking debilitating hubris.

But Tulane is forever pitiful because it is simultaneously so easy to ignore. The threat is ultimately so weak. Bloody Mary may not enter your mind until your finger reaches for the light; Tulane will not enter your mind until the week of the game, or until gameday or, quite possibly, kickoff. Each represents a concept that is expendable, of zero concern, until it must actually be confronted. Southern Miss currently possesses a trophy - an old-fashioned bell - that is of value only in that Tulane doesn't have it. Even in its own town, its own stadium, Tulane is an afterthought. LSU, seventy-five miles away, overwhelmingly dominates hometown media and popularity. The Superdome itself belongs intractably to the Saints. Athletic glory is the domain of baseball. While Tulane football goes on, is kicked out by disaster, kicked around, left for dead in front of more empty seats on a weekly basis than any other team in America, with aspirations that rarely go beyond breaking even to play in front of more emprty seats in Mobile or some place. It's one of the sorriest situations to kick off a series that will see more than its share of futility along the way.

What's Changed: The entire, insipid, self-perpetuating culture of defeat, for a while at least, under very excited new head coach Bob Toledo, who emerged in December from obscurity in New Mexico to slghtly better-paid obscurity in swampier environs. Toledo had spent three years post-UCLA out of coaching, and one year coordinating the embodiment of bland non-Utah-based Mountain West offenses, but nostalgia is a powerful force - Tulane's greatest modern football success will forever remain its 12-0 miracle of 1998, the same season Toledo missed an undefeated regular season/mythical championship berth with easily his best UCLA team by a few seconds in Miami. That loss should prepare Toledo well for life in New Orleans, as it was a) a loss, b) a hurricane make-up game, and c) featured more than 90 points and 1,300 yards total offense, which will be familiar numbers for Toledo again soon enough, if not quite so evenly distributed among both teams.

What's the Same: Tulane found itself stuck early in 2004 with an all-freshman defensive line and was predictably pushed around. Three years on, Antonio Harris and Avery Williams have survived as starters and are, naturally, still being pushed around, though less so than as underclassmen - the rush defense improved by more than 40 yards per game in 2006, but couldn't make up for a deteriorating pass defense, or help it by generating any sort of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Three pretty decent linebackers graduated in `05, and were replaced at the top of the tackle sheet by five defensive backs, three of whom return (both corners will be new).

Great Expectations, Again: Lester Ricard circa 2004 was as sure a bet as Tulane will ever have, an LSU transfer in exactly the pro-style mold of previous big, catapult-armed NFL busts Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman, with slightly better wheels. Where those passers, like Shaun King, had at least managed a winning record as upperclassmen, Ricard only eked out ten wins in three years as a starter, displaying enough arm strength and sheer size - as well as crippling inconsistency - in the process to earn a likely spot in the second day of the pro draft, and Tulane is starting over. Scott Elliott was 1-1 in two starts in 2005 but remains, eh, just a guy (SMQ declares this exceedingly usefl description, cribbed from MGoBlog's own cribbing from an NFL scout on Troy Smith, now firmly part of the lexicon). Baseball player and ex-coach's nephew Anthony Scelfo got a couple snaps against LSU as a true freshman but neither he nor Elliott, both listed at sub-200 pounds, fits the beefier model like redshirt freshman Kevin Moore (6-5, 215), who was fairly hyped (top 50 quarterback by Scout, according to his bio, but only PS#137 by Phil Steel's estimation) out of Texas last year.

Deception in Advertising: Make no mistake about this team's very competent and sometimes prolific passing stats or its quasi-tradition of overrated quarterbacks: Tulane is not, and has not been in any way since the brief Bowden-King collaboration nearly a decade ago (!), good on offense. Against eventual bowl teams in 2006, the Wave scored 7, 7, 38, 13, 3 and 3 points. The 38 in that sequence came against Rice, which allowed four succeeding opponents to top 300 yards passing and finished 110th in pass efficiency defense; average the five efforts against moderately breathing units and you get 6.6 points per game and two total touchdown passes to five interceptions. If you're a rabid individualist into the numbers-only world of fantasy football, take Elliott or Moore to reliably torch Army or SMU, but drop them against any defense ranked in, say, the top three-fourths of the country.

Overly Optimistic Offseason Chatter: Athletic director Rick Dickson is hoping for record attendance, and his dream may come true due to seven home games, four straight to open the year. What is this, Nebraska? The coup de grace is getting LSU back into the Superdome for a regular season game for the first time since the early nineties, which will (seriously) account for more than a third of Tulane's entire attendance on the season; attendance for that game alone, if it generates only the average LSU crowd in Louisiana, is worth at least three typical home games to Tulane, and probably more.

Best-Case: The quarterback has to do something, but a healthy Forte presents aenough of a threat that the offense can reasonably continue its success against meager opposition, which is mostly what it will face; a trip to Auburn is replaced by a home game with Southeastern Louisiana, annual foil Southern Miss is replaced by downtrodden Memphis in-conference. Mississippi State has been a good matchup for Tulane recently, and Houston is replacing most of its conference title team. So a 3-0 start before LSU comes in for a stompin' is not out of the picture by any means. If it can take two of a three-game road swing at Army, UAB and SMU, which is also conceivable, Tulane could be coming home to three straight home games into November needing to only win one to become eligible for a meaningless December token of the variety the program has only enjoyed twice in the past twenty years. For a team that still figures to be pretty lousy in the big picture, it's awfully tough to pick out more than three very probable losses (LSU, Tulsa and either Houston or Mississippi State). The ceiling is eight wins, of the quickest and dirtiest possible variety.

Worst-Case: Of course, on the flip side, it's equally impossible to pick out more than two very probable wins, either, and there are no sure things in the murky mediocrity of Conference USA; if there were, Tulane is typically as likely a candidate as any to be it. The new quarterback, or series of quarterbacks, could entirely implode, the defense could follow and the squad reject its coaching transplant and beat only Southeastern Louisiana and Army. If you'd prefer a more thorough pessimism, neither of those is necessarily a lock itself. The trough is in the vicinity of 1-11.

Non-binding Forecast: The usual rule of toss-ups is to split the difference, and Tulane is facing about nine such games. In reality, though, six of those possible pick `ems are against teams that were at least two games better than TU in the standings in 2006. Also face the fact that the quarterbacking, just okay to begin with, is in all likelihood going to be trying to crawl out of a recession in talent and experience for most of the year. This is not the sort of team that benefits dramatically from returning most of its starters, these being primarily the same starters that returned from 2005 to win four last year, and whatever benefits are gained from that experience are likely to be offset by inexperience not only at quarterback, but also on both corners. Give Tulane one game out of the aforementioned six, and you're looking at a quite reasonable deja vu: 4-8 with two conference wins. Any improvement on that is positive karma for Toledo.

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Thanks to Dawgs by Nature for help with the chart.