BOWL WAVE: Tulane to face Southern Cal after AAC championship win

Jude Papillion, Editor-in-Chief

Tulane football ended seven of its first eight seasons in the American Athletic Conference with a losing record. After beating UCF on Saturday, No. 16 Tulane football earned its 11th win of the season and first AAC conference title. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

After a disheartening 2-10 finish one year ago, Tulane football notched its 11th win and earned its first-ever American Athletic Conference title after slaying the University Central Florida Knights 45-28 on Saturday. 

Despite winning a conference championship and finishing undefeated 22 years ago in 1998, the path Tulane has taken to get where it is now — 11-2 and headed to the Cotton Bowl — is unprecedented, and the perception of Tulane football has shifted drastically. 

Days before last year’s home opener, all of Tulane Athletics was forced to relocate to Birmingham for a month due to the impact of Hurricane Ida, and the roster sustained several critical injuries as the arduous season dragged along.

“This brotherhood is strong and part of it happened in Birmingham when we got displaced and we were in a hotel and it was tough. I mean we were getting beat every week,” Green Wave receiver, Shae Wyatt, said. “It was hard to bounce back, but if you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you.”

This year, Tulane returned 18 of 22 starters from a year ago and sought to do something special — and they did. Three opponents the Wave beat this year — UCF, Houston and Cincinnati — are leaving the AAC for the Big 12 after this season, and Kansas State, who Tulane defeated on the road, won the Big 12 championship after beating No. 3 TCU on Saturday. On top of that, Tulane finished the year ranked higher than LSU in both the College Football Playoff and AP polls.  

And although last month Tulane took down Cincinnati on the road for their first win against a ranked team since 1984, Saturday’s conference championship win over No. 22 UCF is arguably the biggest win ever on Tulane’s campus. 

Yulman Stadium broke its attendance record for the AAC Championship game with a crowd of 31,184. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

“It was not like any other football game I’ve gone to where people are just there to socialize,” said Tulane senior JP Lisi. “This time people were there to support and cheer the team on and it was unlike any Tulane game I’ve ever been to.”

On a humid and overcast afternoon under Uptown’s oak trees, Yulman Stadium saw a record crowd of 30,118 for the AAC Championship between the Green Wave and Central Florida. For the first time since the team moved into the stadium in 2014, the student section remained packed until the end of the game on an afternoon many around Tulane’s campus will never forget. 

“I thought it was an electric atmosphere the whole game. They were loud when they needed to be loud, and it was a great moment for Tulane University and our football program,” Green Wave head coach Willie Fritz, who announced his intention to remain at the university last week, said. 

“This is the first time, obviously, since I’ve been here, I came out for warmups and over an hour before the game we probably had [2000] or 3000 students out there in the endzone,” Fritz added. “I think we finally got people out of the Glazer Club watching the game instead of eating that great food and drinking daiquiris out there, so the second level looked like it was full too.”

The Wave’s rematch with UCF came after the Knights won 38-31 at Yulman earlier this season. After allowing UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee to run for 176 yards in the first meeting, the Green Wave defense forced him to net -7 yards on Saturday.

Plumlee finished with 209 passing yards and a touchdown; however, he was in and out of the contest due to a lingering hamstring injury that forced UCF to rely on their backup, Thomas Castellanos, and running back, Isaiah Bowser. 

UCF’s offensive adjustments were unable to stir the Tulane defense which limited Bowser to 85 yards and Castellanos to 7 yards passing, racked up six sacks and forced the Knights to punt seven times. 

aac championship
Green Wave running back Tyjae Spears has racked up 1376 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns this season. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

Offensively, Tulane combined for 648 yards with running back Tyjae Spears setting the tone for the unit. Spears, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year, rushed for a season high 199 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown run that had UCF defenders missing from all angles early in the third quarter. 

“I saw a lot of dudes and a lot of missed tackles,” Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt said when asked about Spears’ long run. “He makes this game a lot easier for me, he makes it a lot of fun and definitely opened up the passing game.”

With the Knights forced to keep an eye on Spears, Pratt attacked through the air, throwing for 394 yards and four touchdowns enroute to being named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Pratt gained 48 yards on the ground highlighted by an 18-yard touchdown run to secure the victory late in the fourth quarter. 

As the final seconds ticked, Green Wave fans eagerly sat atop the wall waiting to rush the field. 

“I really think it was one of my favorite moments of going to this school so far. It was so amazing. I’m on the field seeing all my friends, hugging all my friends on the team and it was just so insane,” Lisi said. “[This season] is definitely putting Tulane on the radar and on the map for a lot of people outside the Uptown community.”

After being crowned champions of the American and finishing as the highest ranked Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff poll, the No. 16 Green Wave will now face the No. 10 University of Southern California Trojans in the 87th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 2, 2023. 

Earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl is monumental for Tulane; despite concluding recent seasons in postseason games such as the Cure Bowl and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Green Wave has not participated in a major bowl game since falling to Texas A&M in the 1940 Sugar Bowl. The Wave’s upcoming appearance in the Cotton Bowl is just the fourth time Tulane has ever accomplished such a feat, and the first time in 83 seasons after leaving the Southeastern Conference in 1966 and almost dropping football entirely on two separate occasions. 

Meeting USC is also significant for Tulane. Though the Wave last faced the Trojans in the 1946 season and earlier in 1942, the Green Wave battled USC in the 1932 Rose Bowl and national championship — the Olive and Blue’s first appearance in a major bowl game — just months before joining the SEC. The Wave fell 21-12 that day but now have an opportunity to change the narrative once again.

Head Coach Willie Fritz surfs across the Green Wave locker room following Saturday’s victory. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

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