The Tulane Green Wave remain in search of their first FBS win of the 2021 college football season, a drought they'll aim to end when they host the Houston Cougars on Thursday night for an American Athletic Conference (AAC) matchup. The Green Wave (1-4, 0-1 AAC) opened with a promising start when a fourth-quarter rally fell just short against Oklahoma, but a 69-20 home rout of FCS Morgan State remains the Green Wave's only victory through the first five weeks of the season.
The Cougars (4-1, 2-0), meanwhile, are riding a tall wave of their own momentum, having bounced back from a 17-point season-opening home loss to Texas Tech with four consecutive wins, eclipsing 40 points in three of the four and holding all but one of the four opponents to 10 or fewer points. The only outlier for both of those groups was Houston's AAC opener against Navy two weeks ago, when the Cougars used a 14-point fourth quarter to squeak out a 28-20 win against the Midshipmen.
That dominance also has been the story of Houston's performance against Tulane in the last several years. Aside from 2001 and 2013, these two programs have met every year since 1996. The last seven meetings have been split 4-3 in favor of Houston, with each of the Cougars' wins in that span coming by double digits — with 40-plus points scored in three of the four — while each of the Green Wave's three victories since 2014 has been by seven or fewer points. The Cougars own an 18-7 lead in the all-time series, boosted by a run of 10 straight wins — with an average margin of 26.1 points per game — from 2003 to 2012.
Houston at Tulane
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -6
When Houston Has the Ball
Clayton Tune may have had a hand in all three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) in the Week 1 loss to Texas Tech, but that was one of the few positives in an otherwise nightmarish game for the Cougars' quarterback. Among the lowlights — he managed just 174 passing yards and threw four interceptions, including three in the second half. Since the opener, however, he's thrown five touchdowns against just two interceptions as he's helped lead his team to four straight wins.
Tune hardly has had to carry the offense by himself, though, thanks to plenty of support in the rushing game. Of the Cougars' 21 touchdowns on offense, 12 have come on the ground. Alton McCaskill and Ta'Zhawn Henry have combined for 10 of those rushing touchdowns with McCaskill's seven trailing only USF running back Jaren Mangham's nine for the AAC lead. Henry notched a pair of scores in the win against Navy, but it was McCaskill who couldn't be stopped on Friday against Tulsa. The freshman rushed 17 times for 77 yards and a season-high three touchdowns, his second straight 17-carry game and third multi-touchdown effort of 2021.
The Green Wave don't exactly find themselves in great company when it comes to their play on defense through five games. Only seven teams have allowed more total yards per game than Tulane's 482, and those seven teams have combined for eight total wins. Tulane enters Week 6 in the bottom 20 nationally in yards allowed through the air and on the ground, and only UMass (47.2), Arkansas State (45.6), Kansas (43.8), and Akron (42.4) — teams with three collective victories — have surrendered more points per game in 2021 than the 40.2 given up by Tulane.
When Tulane Has the Ball
Michael Pratt has had plenty of ups and downs in 2021 after an impressive freshman season in 2020. Pratt fell just shy of a 300-yard start to the season when he threw for 296 and three touchdowns in the loss at Oklahoma, though he added 34 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Interceptions have been a problem for the young signal-caller, however, as he's thrown five picks — compared to just four touchdowns — in the last two games.
Pratt and Cameron Carroll pace the team with four and three rushing scores, respectively, though Carroll has mustered just 205 yards on the ground as the Green Wave have been fairly balanced — though not exactly prolific — in the run game. Balanced also is a reasonable way to describe Tulane's receiving corps, as Tyrick James' 289 receiving yards thus far makes up just 25 percent of Pratt's passing yardage — for context, each of the nation's top five receivers ha brought in at least 40 percent of their offense's passing yardage.
The Green Wave's inability to eclipse 30 points in their last three games won't get any easier this week, as the Cougars boast the conference's second-best scoring defense that allows just 15 points per game (Cincinnati, 14.5). That consistent ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard can be attributed to a variety of strengths, as the unit's 3.2 sacks per game and 25 percent third-down conversion rate allowed both lead the AAC. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the Cougars defense's AAC-best marks in passing (144.4), rushing (109.2), and total (253.6) yards allowed, with the passing and total yardage marks both ranked among the top five in the FBS entering this week.
Putting points on the scoreboard hasn't been the problem for Tulane in the early going, as the Cougars and Green Wave both have scored more than 36 per game through the first five contests. But Tulane's defensive struggles will mean a steep hill to climb in order to snap its losing streak, with both teams looking to secure a win before heading into a bye week.
Prediction: Houston 43, Tulane 27
Podcast: Recapping + Discussing the Numbers to Know from Week 5
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.