Summer Vacation: Ball Hawks, the Tulane Green Wave, and a Man Named Orleans

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.  And here: play this in the background to get yourself in the mood for this one.

Memory is a funny thing.  Back in the 1980s, when men were men, haircuts were haircuts, and tearaway jerseys made tackling Herschel Walker hilariously impossible, we couldn't be quite as picky regarding what college football games we wanted to watch.  If there was one on, there probably weren't 17 others to choose from.  Thus, while I cannot remember probably half of the games I watched last season, I remember watching every second of the 1987 Independence Bowl between Washington and Tulane and rooting passionately for the Green Wave because a) I was a guilty liberal even early in life, putting my heart on the line for every underdog I could find, and b) Tulane's colors, logo, etc., were just so damn unique and cool.  I recall thinking something to the effect of, "An up-and-coming program in New Orleans? This team is going to be huge!"  Naturally, I was correct.  Fifty years too late.  (I also adopted the Pittsburgh Pirates ten years too late and the Miami Dolphins 15 years too late.  Does that make me an old soul?)

Alas, Tulane is now another lost 1930s power who, unlike Fordham, Minnesota or St. Mary's, actually still fields an FBS team.  Or they try to, anyway.  The undefeated season of 1998 was quite a while ago now, and though Bob Toledo is likable and hard-working ... the results just haven't been there.

(Just kidding, Gopher fans.)

(Fun fact, by the way: the coach of the 1987 Tulane Green WaveMack Brown.  Small world.)

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 105
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep SE Louisiana
27-21 W 9.6 - 32.0 L
11-Sep Ole Miss 13-27 L 22.6 - 29.7 L
25-Sep at Houston 23-42 L 19.3 - 28.4 L
2-Oct at Rutgers 17-14 W 17.1 - 24.1 L
9-Oct Army 23-41 L 21.8 - 36.6 L
16-Oct at Tulsa 24-52 L 26.2 - 37.2 L
23-Oct at UTEP 34-24 W 25.8 - 28.8 L
30-Oct SMU 17-31 L 18.0 - 33.7 L
6-Nov Southern Miss 30-46 L 33.6 - 23.6 W
13-Nov Rice 54-49 W 31.2 - 38.3 L
20-Nov Central Florida 14-61 L 23.7 - 36.3 L
27-Nov at Marshall 23-38 L 17.9 - 23.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 24.9 80 37.2 113
Adj. Points Per Game 22.2 99 31.0 91

Well, Tulane at least had symmetry going for them in 2010.  Win one, lose two.  Win one, lose two.  Win one, lose two.  Win one, lose two.  They stuck to the script even when it meant somewhat odd results, like an upset win over Rutgers.  Due mostly to a defense that couldn't stop a good high school running game, the Green Wave fared worse in terms of Adj. Points (against 12 perfectly average teams, they'd have likely won just once).  A freshman named Orleans boosted the offense as the season progressed, but with that defense, it didn't necessarily matter.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 104 96 108
RUSHING 98 93 101 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 101 93 107 86
Standard Downs 111 99 115 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 71 74 67 101
Redzone 117 115 117
Q1 Rk 111 1st Down Rk 110
Q2 Rk 79 2nd Down Rk 68
Q3 Rk 80 3rd Down Rk 112
Q4 Rk 116

Say this much for the Texas and Louisiana mid-majors we've discussed so far: they produce running backs.  Bryce Beall at Houston.  Sam McGuffie and Jeremy Eddington at Rice.  Big Zach Line at SMU.  Joe Banyard at UTEP.  Lennon Creer at Louisiana Tech.  In the NFL, it is said that running back is one of the most replaceable positions on the field because, among other things, there are so many equally-talented guys.  Apparently the same could be said for mid-major college football in the mid-south.

For Tulane, it's the awesomely-named Orleans Darkwa.  A guy named Orleans!  At Tulane!  The freshman toted the ball just 38 times in Tulane's first six games, and the Green Wave averaged just 19.4 Adj. Points per game.  He carried 20 times in each of the last six games, and Tulane's average increased to 25.0.  Still below average, but a step in the right direction.  A 5'11, 200-pounder from Nashville, Darkwa showed durability and, relatively speaking at least, solid efficiency.  He posted a surprise 114 yards in Tulane's mini-upset over UTEP, then erupted for 331 combined yards in home losses to SMU and Southern Miss.  Despite standing at just 174 total yards halfway through the season, he ended up with 925 yards (5.0 per carry) and 11 touchdowns and grabbed second-team all-conference honors.

He's going to have to carry even more of a load in 2011, as ... well, I'm not sure quarterback Ryan Griffin has anybody to which he can throw the ball.  His three most frequent targets from last season -- receivers Casey Robottom (56-for-663) and D.J. Banks (47-for-419) and tight end Cody Sparks (43-for-427) -- have all departed Bob Toledo's squad, either by choice or by exhausted eligibility.  Receiver Ryan Grant (33-for-515 and four touchdowns) showed solid explosiveness potential (six-for-128 against Tulsa, three-for-140 and two touchdowns against Rice), but we'll see what happens when he makes the step up to No. 1 target.  And even if he works out beautifully, who's No. 2 exactly?

Other tidbits:

  • A decent possession receiver, Banks was particularly valuable on passing downs -- over half his catches came on such downs, and his efficiency was one of the primary reasons Tulane was actually not half bad on passing downs.  (On standard downs?  One of the worst in the country.  However you're going about your play-calling, Coach Toledo, you might want to flip the script around a little bit.  A full season of Darkwa can't hurt, I guess.)
  • The line returns three of five starters.  Good, right?  Eh.  The two lost linemen, Andrew Nierman and Pete Hendrickson, combined for 85 career starts, and each garnered honorable-mention all-conference honors.  The three guys returning?  Forty-three career starts and no all-conference votes.
  • Though not as powerful and sound as Darkwa, 5'9 junior-to-be Albert Williams is a nice complement in the offensive backfield.  He combined for 123 yards on 21 carries early in the season against Ole Miss and Houston and should prevent Tulane coaches from foisting 30 carries per game on Darkwa.
  • Griffin is a solid quarterback, but if he gets hurt, there is a "Grand Canyon-sized dropoff in production after Griffin on the depth chart."  So that patchwork line better prove themselves in a hurry and keep Griffin off the canvas.
  • Why yes, running backs coach Greg Davis, Jr., is related to former Texas offensive coordinator and former Tulane head coach Greg Davis, Sr.

 

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 105 92 106
RUSHING 116 111 116 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 63 34 81 113
Standard Downs 95 85 98 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 107 83 111 39
Redzone 108 104 110
Q1 Rk 93 1st Down Rk 87
Q2 Rk 98 2nd Down Rk 117
Q3 Rk 114 3rd Down Rk 85
Q4 Rk 68

Credit where it is due: Tulane attacked and went after the ball.  Four players recorded at least two forced fumbles, seven players broke up or defended at least five passes, and their pass rush was downright strong.  Defensive ends Austen Jacks (6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR) and Dezman Moses (11.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, honorable mention all-conference) give Tulane one of the more accomplished pairs of pass rushers in Conference USA, and Tulane had no fear in attacking with players like linebacker Trent Mackey (7.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, second-team all-conference) and nickel back Ryan Travis (8.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF).

The problem: they couldn't stop the run to save their lives.  The other problems: their best run stuffer (tackle Justin Adams) is gone from said terrible run D, and now their best cornerback (all-conference Phillip Davis -- 3 INT, 12 PBU) is gone too.  For what Moses and Jacks brought to the table against the pass, they lacked against the run.  And while they have size of which few mid-majors can brag at defensive tackle (senior Chris Asumnu is 6'2, 300; senior Cedric Wilson 6'2, 290), the production there is severely lacking without Adams (Asumnu and Wilson combined for 3.0 TFL/sacks).  If defensive coordinator Steve Stanard cannot figure out how to plug the leak at the line of scrimmage (and in the LB corps, where seemingly only Mackey was worth writing home about), then Tulane could steal LSU's secondary, and it wouldn't make much of a difference.

Other tidbits:

  • The pass defense should still be pretty strong without Davis.  Ryan Travis really was a helluva nickel back last year and could move over to fill Davis' corner slot with little trouble, safety Shakiel Smith is a solid play-maker (75.0 tackles, 3 INT, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU) and Alex Lauricella (16.0 tackles, 5 PBU) showed enough promise in a backup role that the secondary depth should still be a relative strength.
  • Opponents certainly caught wind of Tulane's strengths and weaknesses.  They ran the ball far more than average on standard downs.
  • I really do have to credit Tulane for damning the torpedoes and attacking.  They gave up a ton of big plays because of it, but aggressiveness is fun.

Tulane's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of either the city or the running back -- your choice -- how about a little "Orleans Parish Prison" from Johnny Cash?  Easily the most underrated of the legion of Cash prison songs.  "Well have you seen my green-eyed son? He shot a man down with a sawed-off gun. And they found him down by the Pontchartrain/where they cuffed his arms with a big iron chain."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Tulane did do a nice job of attacking the ball last year.  We'll dive further into the Defensive Footprint figures at some point, but here are the top ten mid-major defenses according to the "Go After the Ball" measure:

Top Ten Mid-Major Defenses According to Go After The Ball
1. Boise State (65.3%)
2. Army (64.4%)
3. Hawaii (63.4%)
4. Tulane (63.3%)
5. Idaho (62.0%)
6. New Mexico (61.1%)
7. Central Florida (60.6%)
8. Florida International (59.4%)
9. Western Michigan (58.2%)
10. Kent State (57.9%)

Clearly this measure does not tie all too closely to pure quality, but hey ... being good at something's better than being good at nothing, right?

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 115
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 110
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -2 / -5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +4.5

So Tulane has a good, young running back, a couple of good defensive ends, a decent secondary, and a 2010 YPP Margin that screams "They were unlucky!"  But it's been a long time since they were even decent -- their best F/+ finish from 2005-10: minus-13.7% and 98th place in 2006 -- and circumstance just has not been kind to the university's athletic program recently.  Even with much better luck, how far do we see this team rising?

Bob Toledo is still the head coach at Tulane despite almost no success, primarily because of what he started with in 2006.

Dickson thought back to Toledo’s starting point: a week in 2006 when members of the staff showed up with their spouses to plant flowers outside the Wilson Center to ready the Hurricane Katrina-battered building for Toledo’s first recruiting weekend.

"When you are only measured by 12 snapshots, you know what, you’re right, all the hubbub and fury that comes with it, yeah, it doesn’t look good … in a lot of aspects," Dickson said of the Green Wave’s 4-8 record this year.

"But when you measure it starting in a damn flower bed and going to where we are today, and looking at everything from academic results to culture, that change in attitude, in results, the 26 kids I talked to, their buying and belief, and some evidence that there is reinforcement of that from the way we are competing" makes it different.

Be it because of the location, the Katrina damage, the color scheme, the '87 Independence Bowl ... it's easy to find reasons to root for Tulane, and I guess it would be somewhat poetic if a back named Orleans led them to just their third bowl since Mack Brown left in the 1980s.

I said "poetic."  I didn't say "likely."

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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