Sep. 6—The Daily Journal caught up with Tulane beat writer Guerry Smith of The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate to see what he considers the keys to the Ole Miss-Tulane matchup.
Michael Pratt is back at quarterback. Where has he grown the most since Ole Miss last saw him? And, as a whole, where has the team as a whole gotten better since then?
Pratt has become a much more accurate quarterback who throws a beautiful deep ball. He not only completed 14 of 15 passes in the opener against South Alabama (the one incompletion was a drop), but he averaged 21 yards per completion. It's a product of being a four-year starter who has gained more and more confidence with each passing season. The team has gotten better across the board, but it was not as bad as it looked on that late night in Oxford, when the Rebels might have been able to hang 100 points on them if they had desired. That game came at the end of Tulane's month-long Hurricane Ida evacuation to Birmingham and the lighting delay before the game was a disaster because coach Willie Fritz had brought all 120 players to the game and they had to sit like sardines in the visitors' locker room waiting for the weather to clear. Just two weeks earlier, they nearly had upset Oklahoma in Norman, but they were spent by the time that game started.
Tyjae Spears was a dynamic back for Tulane last season, but he's off to the NFL. What does the running game look like now? Does the offense have a different direction without him?
There is no replacing Spears, a transcendent runner who, if he stays healthy, will make plenty of NFL teams look stupid for taking other backs ahead of him. Tulane tried four running backs against South Alabama and still does not know who its main guy will be. Makhi Hughes, who entered fourth, had the best night, but he also missed a blitz pickup that led to Pratt getting crushed and ran the wrong way on another play, forcing Pratt to run into a crowd. Fritz's history indicates the running game will pick up, but this definitely will be a team that relies more on the passing game than in the past.
How big of a momentum boost did the Cotton Bowl win give this program, and what is its ceiling? Is there belief this year's team could be even better? What is the expectation around the program?
It was a tremendous boost, starting with the huge Tulane crowd at the game. For the first time since 1998, fans are fired up about the program, and unlike that 12-0 season, which led to the departure of coach Tommy Bowden, quarterback Shaun King and offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and an immediate cliff dive the next season, this team has the potential to be as good or better than last year. We will find out its ceiling maybe as soon as Saturday, but it absolutely has the chance to repeat as the Group of Five representative in one of the major bowls. Fritz almost left for Georgia Tech, but now that he's back, the expectation is for the Wave to stay at this level. The teams that left the American Athletic Conference could affect recruiting down the road as college football moves inexorably towards a few super leagues, but Tulane could be in the conversation for one of them if it sustains this success.
What is the strength of the Tulane defense?
The defensive line is the strength, a departure from last year when the back end was really strong. Pretty much everyone on the two deep depth chart returned up front, Tackle Patrick Jenkins, in his second year with Tulane after transferring from TCU, had a huge game in the opener against South Alabama. The defense took a hit, though, with an injury to linebacker Corey Platt that will keep him out Saturday and maybe for the rest of the year. He already had 15 tackles before he got hurt late in the third quarter as Tulane's linebacker corps proved it would be just fine without leading tacklers Dorian Williams and Nick Anderson from last year. Without Platt, maybe not. The cornerbacks are good, too. The question mark is the safeties, with DJ Douglas and Bailey Despanie starting for the first time. They played well against South Alabama, but Ole Miss presents a whole different challenge.
Willie Fritz was a popular name for coaching gigs last winter, but he ultimately decided to stay. What has he done to build this program up, and what, in your opinion, makes him such a successful coach?
Fritz's attention to detail is second to none, and I covered Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer at Florida. He set about changing a losing culture at Tulane and it took him quite some time—first getting the Wave to .500 level and then having the big breakthrough in year No. 6. He also is incredibly even keeled, so when Tulane had some excruciating losses in 2020 followed by the Hurricane Ida-caused 2-10 descent in 2021, he did not panic and his players followed suit. As a result of last year's success, Tulane has become a destination spot for assistants who like living in New Orleans. He brought on two long-time, highly respected former coaches of the Saints this year to fill openings on the offensive line and special teams. He hired up-and-coming defensive coordinator Shiel Wood away from Troy (which held Ole Miss to 28 points in the opener last year) right before spring drills after the unexpected departure of a new hire to Miami. He has turned a place that was synonymous with losing for nearly half a century into a winning culture.