The Green Wave and Jaguars meet in Mobile on Saturday night
South Alabama aims to improve to 2-0 after an impressive victory at Southern Miss last Thursday, as Tulane visits Mobile on Saturday night. This game marks the first contest in South Alabama's new Hancock Whitney Stadium and should be one of the better matchups on a thin slate for Saturday night in Week 2. Less than 200 miles separate these two campuses, but this is only the second time Tulane and South Alabama have met on the gridiron.
South Alabama started its season with a 32-21 victory at Southern Miss last Thursday. The win in Hattiesburg was the first road victory for the Jaguars under coach Steve Campbell, who improved to 6-19 on the sidelines after last week's game. Quarterback Desmond Trotter and receiver Jalen Tolbert delivered big performances against the Golden Eagles, guiding the offense to an average of 7.7 yards per snap thanks to a few long connections through the air. Louisiana and Appalachian State are the clear favorites to win the Sun Belt in 2020, but if South Alabama can build off a strong performance in the opener, Campbell's team could make some noise in the conference and reach a bowl for the first time since 2016.
Tulane is a program trending up under fifth-year coach Willie Fritz. The Green Wave are coming off back-to-back bowl trips for just the second time in school history. Also, Fritz has guided Tulane to a 14-12 mark over the last two years after a 9-15 record through his first two seasons in New Orleans. The Green Wave bring back 11 starters for 2020 and headline the next tier of teams outside of Memphis, UCF, Cincinnati and SMU in the American Athletic Conference.
These two teams played in 2013, with South Alabama winning 41-39 in New Orleans.
Tulane at South Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Tulane -9.5
When Tulane Has the Ball
The success of Tulane's offense starts on the ground. Under first-year play-caller (and rising star) Will Hall last season, the Green Wave ranked second in the AAC in rush offense. This offense averaged 6.2 yards per snap and 33.1 points a game – the highest mark by the program since joining the AAC. Corey Dauphine was slated to be one of the primary ball carriers for Fritz and Hall in 2020, but he will miss the entire year due to an Achilles tear. While Dauphine's big-play ability and production will be missed, the cupboard isn't empty.
Fritz and Hall have assembled a talented group of running backs to lean on in 2020, and considering no player averaged more than 13 carries a game last season, look for Tulane to spread the wealth once again. Amare Jones is a valuable all-around weapon and is the team's top returning rusher (371 yards). He's joined by promising redshirt freshman Tyjae Spears (192 yards), Cameron Carrell (364), Stephon Huderson (251), and Ygenio Booker (94). The Green Wave bring back three starters in the trenches, but the emergence of freshmen Trey Tuggle and Josh Remetich has added even more depth and talent. In last week's win, South Alabama held Southern Miss to just 95 yards on 37 carries (2.6 ypc). But the Golden Eagles are work in progress along the offensive line and aren't that deep in the backfield. Coming into 2020, the Jaguars had question marks about a rebuilt defensive line. However, after a good showing in the opener, there's optimism Campbell has found the right pieces up front.
With the departure of quarterback Justin McMillan, Southern Miss transfer Keon Howard steps into the starting role for Tulane. Howard played in four games for the Green Wave in 2019, connecting on 12 of 18 throws for 208 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He added 52 yards and a score on the ground. Howard played in 13 games at Southern Miss from 2016-17 and threw for 1,564 yards and nine scores. However, Howard also tossed nine picks and connected on just 54 percent of his throws. Those two numbers will be critical to watch in 2020. Tulane must replace its top two receivers from last fall, but a good foundation is in place. Tight end Tyrick James (19 catches) is an intriguing target, with transfers Mykel Jones, Phat Watts and Duece Watts also factoring into the mix.
South Alabama's defense took a step forward on the stat sheet last season and continued to show improvement in the opener versus Southern Miss. Despite a revamped line, the Jaguars held the Golden Eagles to 5.9 yards a snap, forced two turnovers and allowed just 2.6 yards per carry. The line was active around the line of scrimmage, recording two sacks and five tackles for a loss, with linebacker Nick Mobley (15 tackles) and Riley Cole (12) leading the charge. South Alabama's victory hopes rest on stuffing the run and forcing Howard and the revamped receiving corps to win through the air.
When South Alabama Has the Ball
Quarterback Desmond Trotter showed signs of promise at the end of the 2019 season and appears to be on his way to building off that strong finish. In the opener against Southern Miss, Trotter connected on 16 of 27 throws for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 41 yards over nine carries. Trotter averaged a healthy 11.1 yards per completion last week, which included a 73-yard connection to Jalen Tolbert for a touchdown in the first half and another 31-yard score in the third quarter.
Tolbert has emerged as Trotter's favorite receiver, but he's not the only option. Kawaan Baker is an all-around weapon and caught four passes for 82 yards and a score last week. Jalen Wayne – the nephew of former NFL standout Reggie Wayne – grabbed six passes for 101 yards versus Southern Miss. Another key piece of South Alabama's offensive outbreak last Thursday came in the trenches. The Jaguars came into the season with some uncertainty up front, but the emergence of Wyatt Green at left tackle could bring some stability and improvement to this group. Trotter was pressured but not sacked last week. On the ground, Carlos Davis churned out 85 yards (5.7 ypc), with Terrion Avery chipping in 26.
Continuing last week's progress won't be easy against one of the top defenses in the American Athletic Conference. Tulane held teams to 26.3 points a game and 5.5 yards a snap last season. Fritz's group also excelled at limiting big plays (just 13 allowed of 40 yards or more). The Green Wave bring back seven starters for 2020, with edge rusher Patrick Johnson returning to full strength after playing through a labrum tear last fall. Johnson's health is a big deal for this defense. His ability to win at the line of scrimmage and put pressure on Trotter will help Tulane prevent the big plays Southern Miss allowed last week. In the secondary, cornerback Jaylon Monroe is one of the best in the AAC, and Fritz added two Power 5 transfers – Ajani Kerr and Kyle Meyers – to bolster the depth on the back end.
After throwing two picks last week, Trotter can't afford to make the same mistakes against Tulane. Thanks to the pass rush and secondary, the Green Wave can counter the South Alabama passing game better than Southern Miss did last week. Making Trotter, Baker, Wayne and Tolbert work the field and limiting big plays will be a priority for Tulane coordinator Jack Curtis.
Related: Predictions for Every Game in Week 2
This should be a fun matchup and an intriguing battle in styles. Tulane's hopes of a victory rest on the ground game and a defense that should be among the best in the AAC. South Alabama's big-play ability and offensive potential behind quarterback Desmond Trotter trend to favor a higher-scoring game. Howard is the x-factor to watch in his first start for Tulane. Can South Alabama's defense pick up where they left off last week? If so, this one should go deep into the fourth quarter. However, the Green Wave are better on defense, and the combination of Howard and the running game should be enough to win.
Prediction: Tulane 34, South Alabama 27
(Top photo by Scott Donaldson/South Alabama Strategic Communications)