by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Looking for beneficiaries of the economic downturn? They’re few and far between, but count a handful of under-fire college football coaches among them. For those sorts, of which Tulane’s Bob Toledo can certainly be lumped, it nowadays is often more cost-efficient for some schools to keep their coaches an extra year or two, rather than fire them and have to eat contract buyouts. Which is definitely different from some high-profile locales, where well-heeled athletic boosters often step up and take care of such tabs. But since many Green Wave alums (as well as New Orleans residents) might have forgotten that Tulane even plays football anymore, maintaining the status quo is often the most, and only, cost-efficient way to proceed. So, with the Obama administration unlikely to approve any federal bailout funds for Green Wave football, Toledo returns this fall for his fifth year along the Superdome sidelines despite winning only 13 times in the previous four campaigns.

Although Tulane’s gridiron expectations have always tended to be modest, and there have been more valleys than peaks over the years, the Green Wave has hit enough crescendos in the past that the support base has reason to expect more from the program than the well-meaning Toledo has delivered. It is within conscious memory when Tulane was one of the rages of college football, a brief shining moment in the two-year stint of HC Tommy Bowden that concluded with a perfect 12-0 mark in 1998 that earned the Wave a Liberty Bowl win and number seven ranking in the final polls. And at various times over the past half-century, Tulane has won enough to get its coaches (including Bowden, Mack Brown, and Larry Smith) noticed and hired away by higher-profile institutions. Those brief glimpses of the good life have sustained the program through some very dark days, including the Hurricane Katrina-altered 2005 campaign when the New Orleans campus had to temporarily close for repairs and the football team continued to compete from a remote base at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, playing “home” games at a variety of venues in the region during a very trying autumn. Chris Scelfo, Bowden’s successor and the last coach to take the Wave “bowling” in 2002, lasted for one season beyond the Katrina year before being moved out in favor of Toledo, who once upon a time had UCLA’s program among the nation’s elite in the late ‘90s but whose fortunes have dipped since, and who still hasn’t come close to getting Tulane within sniffing distance of the postseason.

Incremental progress was detected during last year’s 4-8 campaign, the Wave’s best mark since Toledo’s maiden voyage in 2007. But Conference USA sources almost unanimously confirm that this is the year Toledo must get the program turned around in a significant manner or there will be no way he returns in 2012, economic issues or not. Toledo’s buyout will be less costly than it was a year ago, and the school cannot afford to go much longer with so many fans disguised as empty seats. Not to overdramatize things, but it really is win or else this year for Toledo’s Green Wave regime.

Prospects for this fall are cautiously optimistic at best, mostly because the key cogs of a serviceable offense return from 2010, when the strike force improved to 24 ppg after registering only a measly 16 ppg in a brutal ‘09 campaign. Specifically, jr. QB Ryan Griffin and the aptly-named soph RB (New) Orleans Darkwa are established linchpins for an attack that displayed hints of better things to come in 2010. Griffin, a 6'5 junior, passed for over 2400 yards and 14 TDs a year ago, but was kept under wraps during spring while rehabbing from offseason shoulder and foot surgeries. He’ll be ready to go when camp reconvenes in August, but keeping the strong-armed Griffin healthy is of paramount concern to Toledo because there is no significant experienced depth in reserve, and backup D.J. Ponder’s snaps were also limited in spring while he was performing for the baseball team. Redshirt frosh Taylor Bullock or a couple of true frosh, including touted New Jersey prep Nick SamGiocomo, will have a chance to be next in the QB queue this fall, but Toledo knows that he could be walking a tightrope over a worst-case scenario developing at the position. “If Ryan goes down, we have some problems,” the coach admitted in spring work. Similarly, Toledo is concerned about depth along an offensive line that returns three starters but has a severe drop-off in quality in the reserve ranks. Moreover, three of the top four pass catchers from last year’s attack are no longer available, including explosive WR D.J. Banks, who opted to transfer to Louisiana Tech in the offseason after recording 47 receptions a year ago and serving as a change-of-pace QB in Tulane’s “Pelican” (Wildcat) offensive looks. Speedy jr. Ryan Grant and ex-QB Joe Kemp are likely to emerge as Griffin’s top two targets this fall, but the attack could miss the big-play element and versatility that Banks provided a year ago.

The presence of Darkwa, however, at least provides some balance for the attack after his surprising breakout season when gaining 925 yards a year ago, including five straight 100-yard rushing efforts.

We’ve been a bit reluctant to bring up the _efense because, quite literally, there’s been no “D” lately for the Green Wave, and certainly wasn’t a year ago when Tulane allowed 38 points or more in 7 of its last 10 games and ended up in triple-digit rankings vs. the rush (101st at 196 ypg) and scoring (113th at 37 ppg). Seven starters return for the stop unit, although a handful of key impact components (CB Philp Davis, DT Justin Adams, and S Alex Wacha) are among the graduated. Toledo and third-year d.c. Steve Stanard like the athleticism along the front seven, which at least helped produce improved numbers last fall in tackles for loss (71 vs. 45) and sacks (25 vs. 15) from 2009. A couple of former transfers, undersized ex-Duke MLB Trent Mackey (team-high 124 tackles a year ago) and ex-Iowa DE Dezman Moses, have emerged as top playmakers for the platoon, although the “D” overall remains a bit undersized and has been vulnerable to opposing smashmouth tactics which resulted in foes gouging out better than 5 yards per carry last fall. Toledo and Stanard also opened up the competition for all four secondary spots during spring work after the Wave allowed more than 40 big passing plays a year ago and recorded only 10 picks against 21 TD passes. Returnees at CB (jr Ryan Travis) and FS (jr. Shakiel Smith) appeared to exit spring with their starting jobs, but a couple of local recruits, true frosh Renaldo Thomas and Dante’ Butler, could force their way into the lineup sometime in the fall.

Toledo has also sought to upgrade the special teams after the kick and punt return units ranked near the bottom in national stats a year ago, hiring a new coach from South Florida, John Hendrick, to serve as special team coordinator (a first for the program) while also doubling as the DL coach, roles that Hendrick also filled with the Bulls.

The need-for-improvement theme at Tulane carries over to the pointspread column as well, especially at home, where the Wave has covered only 3 of its last 16 at the mostly-empty Superdome. Tulane also hasn’t offered much value in its familiar underdog role, dropping 13 of its last 19 spread decisions as the “short” as well. Toledo’s teams are also only 17-30-1 vs. the line since 2007 and have routinely faded as the seasons have progressed (2-6 vs. the line the last eight games each of the past three seasons). And if going back a bit further to the end of the Chris Scelfo regime, the Wave has failed to cover two-thirds of its games vs. the number (17-34-1) since late in the ‘06 campaign.

Summary...Tulane has already been a go-against pointspread proposition over the past several years, but the situation has the potential to unravel even further this fall if it becomes apparent that Toledo is entering lame-duck status. The elements are present for such a scenario, especially with Toledo already on the hot seat, little experience at QB behind Griffin, questionable depth throughout the roster, and the defense serving as cannon fodder for much of the past decade. A quick start is possible with a manageable early slate (only Tulsa among the first five foes would appear to be a solid favorite vs. the Wave), and a few wins in September should at least buy Toledo until the end of the season to forge a turnaround. And Toledo has stated that there is more overall athleticism on this roster than any of his previous four editions, but that needs to translate into more wins in a hurry, as a bowl bid might be a prerequisite for Toledo to be retained into 2012.

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