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Initial Thoughts on the Season Opener: Tulane at Wake Forest

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Football is back!

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The gridiron Deacs are finally back in action this Thursday, kicking off the 2016 campaign by hosting the Tulane Green Wave. Wake is a 17-point favorite, and needs a win to stay on track for a return to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.

Last Year

Both teams are coming off of disappointing 3-9 seasons. In 2015, Tulane beat Maine, UCF, and Army, while Wake beat Elon, Army, and BC. Of Tulane’s nine losses, the Green Wave was within 10 points in only one game. Wake, on the other hand, lost four games by eight or fewer points. That was while playing the 41st most difficult schedule in the country, compared to Tulane’s 79th ranked strength of schedule, according to Sagarin’s end of season rankings. Those same rankings predict that last year’s Deacs would have been favored by 16 points at home over the Green Wave.

Returning Production - Offense

Tulane had three players attempt passes last year, and all three have transferred or graduated. On Thursday, the Green Wave will be relying on quarterbacks that have never thrown a college pass. For more on the Tulane QB picture, you can read Riley’s write-up.

Last year’s leading receiver, Teddy Veal (48 catches for 644 yards and 5 TDs), has since transferred to Louisiana Tech. The team does return four other players who caught for over 200 yards apiece, including second-leading receiver Devon Breaux, who is back after briefly leaving the team this offseason to focus on his successful track and field career.

One area where Tulane is returning experienced talent is at running back. Junior Dontrell Hilliard (5.6 ypc) and redshirt junior Sherman Badie (4.3 ypc) were the team’s two leading rushers last year, respectively. These RBs both also surpassed 250 yards receiving last year, making them all-around weapons (Hilliard, who is the starter on Tulane's depth chart, had over 900 yards from scrimmage).

Returning Production - Defense

Tulane also returns a number of talented players on defense. Senior linebacker Nico Marley led the team as a junior with 82 tackles, including 13 tackles for loss (and an interception and forced fumble to boot). The defensive line features one of 17 DTs nationally on the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, Tanzel Smart, who has earned mentions of NFL potential by being a consistently disruptive presence in the backfield.

For more detail and some clips on Hilliard and Smart, check out Adam's write-up.

Coaching

The Green Wave are entering the first season under head coach Willie Fritz, who coached Georgia Southern to a bowl game last year. For more on Coach Fritz and what his hire may mean for Tulane's program, see Robert's write-up. Generally, his teams have emphasized running the ball using a form of an option attack, and the expectation is that that trend will continue at Tulane, as noted by Scott Kushner in the Advocate.

Season Implications

I mean absolutely no disrespect to Tulane when I say Wake needs to win this game and should be able to do so handily. Tulane has some very talented players, but their quarterbacks have yet to throw a college pass and the team has yet to play a game under the new head coach. Other than Delaware, this is the lowest ranked team the Deacs will face all year, and taking care of business on Thursday is the first step in the plan to get to six wins and a bowl bid. For Wake fans who have suffered through consecutive 4-8, 3-9, and 3-9 seasons, and are finally catching a glimpse of what may be some light at the end of the tunnel, this year has to start off on the right note.

I'm very excited to see how the team performs. I hope that we get to see marked improvement over last year's offense, and I hope the defense will show that it can handle the loss of star players Brandon Chubb and Tylor Harris. This will be Wake fans' first look at a number of potential future stars like Cade Carney, Rocky Reid, Amari Henderson, Steven Claude, and yes, Dom Maggio. Meanwhile, there are other exciting players Wake fans have seen before who have had another offseason to develop.

If you can't be there in person to cheer on the team, the game will be streamed on ESPN3. Let's hope that by the end of the week we're 1/6 of the way towards bowl eligibility. Wake Forest football is back!

Go Deacs!