Week 3 of As For Football’s conference previews looks at the American Athletic Conference. As a bonus, we’ll also look at Army’s independent opponent, UMass.
If you missed previous entries into the preview series, these are archived below:
Tulane Green Wave
The Tulane Green Wave won five conference games in 2018 with big-time upset victories over Memphis, South Florida, and Navy. That was good enough to give them a share of the American Conference West title, and along with their FCS win over Nicholls State made them bowl eligible for the first time in recent memory. The Green Wave then demolished Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cagins in the Cure Bowl, 41-24. Coming off their best season in decades, Head Coach Willie Fritz’s program boasts more confidence and much more excitement than they’ve felt in one Hell of a long time.
Tulane had a good-but-not-great defense last year and an explosive but woefully inconsistent offense. A simple look at the numbers tells the story. They rushed for a whopping 4.7 yards/carry using Fritz’s unique spread variant of the triple-option offense, and they held opponents to just a 33.7% conversion rate on 3rd downs. When they could hit a few big plays in the passing game, that was more than enough to get the win, even against an AAC powerhouse like Memphis. But the Green Wave couldn’t just pound the rock. Their spread-set featured a base read-option component and a very real passing threat. Like a lot of these systems, the design was meant to create explosive plays. Tulane got some of those, especially in the running game, but they didn’t complete many passes, and overall, that gave them just 35.4% success on 3rd down. That was not good enough, especially in crucial situations.
Fritz hired former Memphis tight ends coach Will Hall as his new offensive coordinator back in December, and — ominously — Hall promises to speed up Tulane’s tempo and offensive decision making. The good news is that QB Justin McMillan is back for his senior (grad school) season, and he’s got enough experience to effectively run an uptempo read-option scheme. The bad news is that the go-fast approach is going to exacerbate Tulane’s offensive character–for both better and worse.
The Green Wave feature an experienced defense heading into 2019, especially along their D-Line, so if the uptempo approach works, they could very easily push for a share of the division title again. A run at the AAC Championship Game is by no means an impossibility. But FPI has them favored in just six games. Moreover, Memphis is also stacked this season, Houston is quickly rebuilding, and even SMU looks markedly better according to FPI. Tulane fans have a lot to look forward to — potentially — but 2019 looks like something of a prove-it year for the current offensive approach as well. If these guys can consistently move the ball, though, watch out!
— Tulane University Football (@GreenWaveFB) July 30, 2019
2109 is going to be a tough year for a Midshipmen team coming off a three-win season. FPI has them favored in just three games, and that’s before we consider the specifics of their current roster. Senior QB Malcolm Perry can be one of the most dynamic runners in all of college football, but his team’s completion percentage in the passing game dipped below 42% in 2018, and worse, since Perry is the fastest player on his own team, his pitch plays often slow the offense down. Teams keyed on him personally whenever he was under center last year, and his team had real problems because of it.
Still, Navy’s offense at least produced. Their defense was God-awful. The Mids allowed a 46.5% conversion percentage on opposing 3rd downs, and that was with an experienced linebacking corps led by now-graduated Taylor Heflin. Go back and watch Navy’s game at Air Force to see Heflin’s impact. Seriously. When he went out, the Mids’ defense fell completely apart. He’s out now, and the Mids have new starters across the board, led by a new defensive coordinator. Long term, that’s bound to lead to legitimate improvement. This particular year, though, the Mids might well start off with some growing pains.
It’s a problem because Navy has just three truly winnable games, two of which come in the early season. They’ll beat Holy Cross, presumably, but if they stumble against East Carolina, this team might be into November before its fans have anything to cheer.
Fan Fest is coming up!
?️August 3rd, 2019
? 10:00AM to 12:00PM
— Navy Football (@NavyFB) July 29, 2019
Massachusetts has a new coach who’s spent the offseason trying to recruit new players. With that, the Minutemen are implementing a wholly new philosophy on both sides of the ball. That may well lead to some success down the road, but it’s hard to believe that this is going to be the year that the team gets hot.
Past iterations of the Minutemen have been good or even great on offense, especially in the passing game, but no better than average (bad) on defense. Giving up 5.8 yards/carry makes it hard to win, honestly, and that’s a big part of why this team won just four games in 2018.
FPI has Massachusetts favored in just three games in 2019, and honestly, it’s hard to believe that they’ll overperform. Changing culture takes time. Maybe they get a surprise victory in the opener against Rutgers — who’d be truly surprised by that? — but where else can they pick up an upset? FPI says that Coastal Carolina and Liberty might be vulnerable, but it’s incredibly hard to believe that the Flames will drop any winnable games this year, and anyway, it’s just as likely that Akron or UConn, against whom UMass is actually favored, surprise the Minutemen in turn.
UMass might be a team to watch in 2020, but in 2019, they’ll still be putting together pieces for the future.
3️⃣5️⃣ ➡️➡️➡️ ??
— UMass Football (@UMassFootball) July 26, 2019