The American Conference No. 18 Tulane, UTSA aim to set aside distractions with title game berth at stake

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UCF running back RJ Harvey runs against Tulane during the second half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The athletic director who helped Tulane turnaround its long-languishing football program is gone.

Willie Fritz could leave next if power conference suitors line up to lure away arguably the most successful coach in the 130-season history of Green Wave football.

In the meantime, No. 18 Tulane (10-1, 7-0 American Athletic Conference) is getting ready for another big game. UTSA (8-3, 7-0) visits Friday with a berth to the AAC title game on the line.

Fritz has remained his usual steady self as he tries to keep Tulane players focused on what they have to do this week in this particular match-up.

“I won’t talk about it, but our kids understand if we win Friday, we get to play another one and we get to play it at home,” Fritz said. ”We just want to go 1-0 this week.”

After a 24-8 victory at FAU last week, Tulane, which started playing football in 1893, has two straight 10-win seasons for the first time. Having beaten USC in the Cotton Bowl last season, Tulane could go to a second straight major New Year’s Day bowl game by winning its regular season finale and the AAC title game.

But beating the Roadrunners looks like a tall order, given the way senior quarterback Frank Harris — now in his seventh season at UTSA — has played lately.

Harris accounted for 523-yard total yards and six touchdowns in a 49-21 victory over South Florida last week, passing for 411 yards and three touchdowns, as well as rushing for 112 yards and three scores.

“He’s very elusive and hard to bring down, breaking tackles, extending plays to throw or to scramble,” Tulane defensive coordinator Shiel Wood said. “You want to try to keep him in the pocket.”

Harris missed three non-league games with a foot injury early this season. Since his return, UTSA has won seven straight conference games — all by 8 or more points.

Now they have a chance to knock off the defending conference champs, perhaps en route to a first AAC title of their own after moving over from Conference USA this year.

Roadrunners coach Jeff Traylor, sounding much like Fritz, insisted that his players would not be preoccupied by the stakes.

“We don’t think about it,” Traylor said. “Whoever’s on the schedule, we line up and play.”

But Traylor didn’t hide his admiration for Fritz and quarterback Michael Pratt, who like Harris is his school’s career leader in yards and touchdowns passing.

“They know how to win,” Traylor said. ”Every inch is going to seem like you’re fighting for your life.”

LEADERSHIP QUESTIONS

This will be the first game for Tulane since the announcement of newly hired athletic director David Harris. He takes over in January for Troy Dannen, who left in October to run Washington’s athletic department.

Fritz said Tulane administrators asked his opinion on candidates. He had favored the promotion of deputy assistant director Kortne Gosha, but he dismissed the notion that his relationship with the administration would suffer after the selection of someone else.

“I don’t make the decisions for the athletic department. I only do it for the football program,” Fritz said. “Any time you get somebody new coming in here to your athletic department or university or whatever the case may be, you want to do a great job helping them make the adjustment.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

When Texas A&M fired Jimbo Fisher, reports circulated that the Aggies were interested in Traylor.

The UTSA coach was in no mood to discuss how he’s balanced being courted with continuing to prepare UTSA for a high-stakes game.

“There’s nothing to balance,” Traylor said. “This is about Frank Harris and the Roadrunners.

Asked whether he interviewed with A&M, Traylor responded, “We play Friday at 2:30 (local time).”

TOUGH TALK

While both teams have key players hobbled, Traylor stressed that, “Healthy teams don’t win championships. Tough ones do.”

Traylor pointed out that Harris has played through nagging injuries and that it’s apparent to him that Pratt has as well.

“That’s two really tough quarterbacks that will lay it on the line for their team,” Traylor said.

The like-minded Fritz noted that Tulane has “had guys get banged up, we haven’t played well the whole time and we’ve found a different way to win.”

FAMILIAR FOE

Wood is in his first season as Tulane’s defensive coordinator after holding the same job at Troy last season.

As it turns out, the Trojans defeated a Harris-led UTSA squad, 18-12, in the Cure Bowl last season, holding Harris to a season-low 206 total yards and intercepting him twice.

“They are very similar this year to what they were last year, so having gone through the prep for that game has certainly helped,” Wood said. “I’m more familiar with them than some of the other opponents that I’ve faced this year for the first time.”

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