NEW ORLEANS - Tulane finished off the 2018 season on a high note, closing out the campaign with a 5-1 run that included its first postseason victory in 16 years - a 41-24 triumph over in-state rival Louisiana-Lafayette in the Cure Bowl - and a share of the American Athletic Conference West Division title. Now the Green Wave look to maintain the momentum as they open the 2019 season at home Thursday night against Florida International.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3. LINE: Tulane -2.
"It's a big game for us and it's a big game for them," said fourth-year Tulane head coach Willie Fritz, whose team was picked third in the American West Division in the conference preseason poll. "I'm glad we're playing it at home." The Green Wave return 17 starters from last year, including eight from a defense that rang up a league-best 41 sacks and ranked third in the conference in total defense (406.8 yards per game). That defensive prowess will be vital against the explosive Golden Panthers, who come off an impressive campaign of their own with a school-best nine wins, and they return nine offensive starters, led by record-setting quarterback James Morgan, from an offense that scored a Conference USA-high 34.6 points per game. "We are unbelievably fortunate to have him as our starting quarterback and our leader," said head coach Butch Davis, who has led FIU to back-to-back bowl appearances in two seasons at the helm. "He sets the standard at our practices. … The amount of time and effort that he spends in studying the opponent. You couldn't ask for a quarterback to do any more. … We have high expectations, just like I know he does, that he's going to have a great senior year."
ABOUT FIU (2018: 9-4)
Morgan (2,727 yards passing) broke the school record for touchdown passes (26), passing efficiency (157.6) and total offense per play (7.67) a year ago to earn Conference USA Newcomer of the Year and he opens the season on a number of quarterback and senior Watch Lists, including the Davey O'Brien Award. The defense also features a headline performer in linebacker Sage Lewis, who was named the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year after setting the school record for total tackles (132) and solos (83) last season, both tops in the conference. Eight defensive starters return from a unit that limited opponents to 25.2 points per game but the front seven must improve its play along the line of scrimmage after managing just 22 sacks and ranking near the bottom of the conference in yards rushing allowed per game (192.2).
ABOUT TULANE (2018: 7-6)
Quarterback Justin McMillan shared the load at quarterback last season but with Jonathan Banks gone, the job will be his after he threw for 1,304 yards and accounted for 15 touchdowns (10 passing, five rushing) a year ago. The offense, however, is far more dangerous on the ground than through the air, which may not bode well for the Panthers, as top running backs Darius Bradwell (1,134 yards, 11 TDs, 5.6 average per carry) and Corey Dauphine (785 yards, seven TDs, 6.3) return from an attack that averaged 218.7 yards rushing per game. The defense lost leading tackler Zachary Harris but the unit expects to create plenty of havoc up front led by junior defensive end Patrick Johnson, who finished second in the conference with 10.5 sacks - recording at least one in seven straight games - fourth in forced fumbles (four) and fifth in tackles for loss with 16.
1. The teams have met just once but that was only two years ago, with FIU producing a 23-10 victory over Tulane in Miami in 2017.
2. Tulane has only appeared in consecutive bowl games twice and it has never won bowl games in two straight seasons.
3. Under Davis, FIU has broken or tied 102 school records.
PREDICTION: FIU 30, Tulane 27
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