Memphis – Under slightly different circumstances, Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin might've been armed to answer a whole different set of questions Sunday at Conference USA Media Day.
Instead, a handful of blown leads and squandered chances added up to a 4-8 season for the Green Wave in 2010. While that was frustrating to endure last fall, it has also provided Griffin and a young but veteran team with plenty of incentive.
"When we look back at last year, we can't help but say it was a big disappointment because of the way we lost, said Griffin, who is back as a third-year starting junior after passing for 2,371 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. "We were so close.
"Now, it's just a matter of finally showing everybody we can win those kinds of games."
The good news is that Tulane, after chipping away the last seasons, is in much better position to change those circumstances in 2011.
With a young and talented foundation in place built more on Louisiana talent than years past, the Wave seems to be poised for a breakthrough in Coach Bob Toledo's fifth season.
Thing is, Tulane was poised in the same place a few times last season and let fourth-quarter leads slip away against C-USA heavyweights SMU and Southern Miss.
That proved to be the difference in another frustrating season and a possible bowl berth – something the Wave hasn't experienced since 2006. But it's not an excuse, and as far as Griffin and Toledo are both concerned, there isn't any more room for what-ifs or what-might've-beens.
"I believe we have learned how to win and now we have to go out and prove it," said Toledo, who is 13-35 with the Wave and has yet to guide the program to a winning record. "It's not good enough to just be competitive. We have to win and we have to go to a bowl game.
"There's a lot of pressure on us to win this year. I put a lot of pressure on us myself. We've come a long way. When we took over this job I didn't realize how tough it was going to be. We've improved it tremendously, but now it's time to take the next step."
That next step is largely on the shoulders of an offense that struggled to keep pace in against high-octane C-USA foes at times last season.
Tulane scored 27 points or fewer in nine games last season and two of its least productive days came in losses to SMU (31-17) and Central Florida (61-14), the two C-USA division champions.
Griffin's return and health are paramount to improving the Wave's offensive output (373.2 total yards and 24.9 points a game), but sophomore tailback Orleans Darkwa is also a major cog after ranking second in C-USA with 925 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs in 2010. Darkwa produced 96.9 yards a game on the ground in league play.
"If Ryan can stay healthy, we have a chance to be a pretty good football team because that opens up a lot of different options for us," Toledo said.
"Running back is probably the deepest position we have and we signed five receivers who we think can contribute as freshmen. We have a lot of different guys we can get the ball to and that should make us better."
An adjusted attitude shouldn't hurt, either.
"The main thing we need to do on offense is finish teams with back-breaking driving drives and back-breaking explosive plays," Griffin said. "We've shown we can move the ball well and do some things early in the game, but when we're up late or we get a turnover from our defense, we need to take advantage of it and have the kind of killer instinct good offense needs to have."
Defensively, Tulane has to take some major strides as well.
The Wave was dead-last in C-USA in scoring defense, giving up 42.9 points a game to league foes, bloated by the late-season blowout against UCF.
Eight starters are back for that unit, and a three-year replenishing process has given Tulane some depth that it hasn't had before.
Toledo said a return to a full roster and then some – 92 players stayed on campus this summer for offseason work – has also paid dividends on special teams where he can plug in younger, athletic players and not have to bog down starters with those duties.
"All three of our specialists are back and we have more guys top choose from now who are good enough and want to play on special teams," Toledo said. "We've got to find some return people. You become really good at special teams when you find a great returner who can change the game in a heartbeat."
The Wave has undoubtedly changed in the last three seasons, transforming from a Conference USA doormat to a team that potentially could be a dark horse in the league race this season.
Toledo and Griffin believe that, and so does a coach whose team had to stage a fourth-quarter rally to fend off the Wave.
On the final Saturday of October last season, Tulane snared a surprising 17-3 lead against SMU in the third quarter and was in prime position for a potential program-building upset.
Instead, the Mustangs found their rhythm late in that third quarter and scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives – three in the final period – while racking up 296 yards.
SMU coach June Jones doesn't foresee that kind of collapse plaguing the Wave this season.
"Tulane has played us tough every time we've played them," Jones said.
"I think Bob has come real close to turning the corner because he's starting to get better skill players. He's got a lot more guys in the secondary can run and the defensive line has gotten better."
In other words, Tulane is close. Again.
But close won't cut it this season.
"We lost three or four games in the last few minutes last season and now it's time for us to start winning those games," Toledo said. "We don't have any more excuses. We're got guys who have played a lot of football and I think we've learned some great lessons about what it takes to win. Now we need to go and start winning."
The Wave opens the season Sept. 3 at home against Southeastern Louisiana.
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