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Plenty of reasons for Tulane rise up the college football ladder

Coaches and players deserve credit at Tulane for such a quick turnaround in Year Two of the Curtis Johnson era (Photo: Parker Waters).Coaches and players deserve credit at Tulane for such a quick turnaround in Year Two of the Curtis Johnson era (Photo: Parker Waters).

It's a new neighborhood for Tulane. The Green Wave resides in the land of winning football.

Eight games into the season, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson is being asked (by me) which bowl would his team would like to play at the end of the season.

Why has Tulane gone from a 10-loss team to a team that still has a chance to win 10?

The reasons are many.

Junior college quarterback Nick Montana has been a steady influence at the most important position on the field. Montana is the perfect bridge from an NFL player (Ryan Griffin) to a pair of freshmen, Devin Powell and Tanner Lee.

Graduate student and transfer Chris Davenport has steadied the Green Wave at the defensive tackle position.

Center Zach Morgan has returned from injury to start all eight games and anchor a young offensive line.

True freshman Nico Marley, all 5-foot-7 inches of him, has been a star at the weakside linebacker spot.

But there's another reason for Tulane's improvement.

Many of last year's group have gotten better. And there is no doubt the coaches deserve credit.

Offensive coordinator Eric Price and quarterbacks coach Mike Neu have done a solid job of coaching up the primary back-up Powell, now a 58 percent passer who is growing more confident.

In a pair of starts against East Carolina and Tulsa, Powell has been handed a play sheet that includes throws that are quarterback friendly. Very few of his tosses have been risky throws in the middle of the field.

The short throws are quick and often to the boundary. The deep throws are often thrown to the outside to one-on-one coverage.

Both touchdown passes against Tulsa, tosses to Ryan Grant and Justyn Shackleford, were against man coverage. Shackleford has become what the Green Wave sorely needed, a complimentary second option to Grant at wide receiver.

Shackleford has five touchdown receptions this season. The past two seasons he had a total of three.

Better play in the offensive line has led to huge gains by running backs Rob Kelley and Orleans Darkwa.

In 2012, Kelley averaged 3.5 yards per carry. This season, Kelley is averaging 5.0 yards per rush. Last season, Darkwa averaged 3.0 yards per carry. In 2013, he's averaging 4.3 yards a tote.

Defensive co-coordinators Jon Sumrall and Lionel Washington have the Wave ranked 48th in the country in total defense.

Cornerback Lorenzo Doss has 10 career interceptions, only eight shy of the school record held by Tulane Hall of Famer Paul Ellis.

Solid defense has kept Tulane in games. When you are ahead, you can be more proficient at protecting the football.

Tulane is tied for fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a turnover margin of plus-11. Four schools: Houston, Buffalo, Oregon, and Missouri are better in this category. Their combined won/loss record is 27-4.

Last season, Tulane was minus-9 in turnover margin.

Johnson and company has also benefitted from a softer schedule.

But last Saturday was a true litmus test for the Green Wave. They were humiliated by Tulsa for eight consecutive seasons, including 45-10 defeat in 2012.

This time around, Tulane outhit the Hurricane on the way to a 14-7 win.

And how about Tulane special teams, a disaster early in the season (three blocked punts allowed). That unit has stabilized. Peter Picerelli punted inside the 20 four times against Tulsa.

Tulane's 2014 schedule will be far more formidable. Southeastern Louisiana is ranked in Football Championship Subdivision, Georgia Tech follows, and so does a move up for the Wave to the American Athletic Conference.

Yet, for the first time in years, there is not trepidation but optimism that Tulane football can meet the challenge.