NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More than any time in his five-year tenure, Tulane coach Bob Toledo contends that talk of a turnaround is realistic.
The Green Wave last appeared in a bowl game in 2002, and its 4-8 record in 2010 matched its best under Toledo, who inherited a massive rebuilding project when he took over a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.
"It's time to stop just being competitive and time to start winning and hopefully get to a bowl game," he said. "That's our goal. This is the best team since I've been here."
Toledo, retained after a comprehensive review from president Scott Cowen and athletic director Rick Dickson at the end of 2010, points to 14 returning starters (seven each on offense and defense) plus both kicking specialists.
Sophomore running back Orleans Darkwa rushed for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games as a freshman, with a 193-yard outburst against eventual Conference USA West champion SMU. He finished with 925 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning second-team All-Conference USA honors from the league's coaches.
Junior Ryan Griffin threw for 2,371 yards and 14 touchdowns with only eight interceptions in his first year as a full-time starter.
Receiving depth is a concern. Tulane lost four its top five pass-catchers. Ryan Grant (33 catches, 515 yards), is the lone returning player who had as many as 20 receptions.
Linebacker Trent Mackey, who had a team-best 124 tackles, leads a defense that returns six of its top seven tacklers. Still, the Green Wave allowed 195.5 rushing yards.
All but one of the returning defensive starters is a junior or senior. The exception, sophomore strong-side linebacker Dominique Robertson, started four times as a true freshman.
"Physically, he's a real specimen," Toledo said. "He's six-foot, 200 pounds, and he can run better than a 4.5, so he can really go. He's explosive.
"Our front seven is better than it's ever been. ... Hopefully that will help in defending the run game."
Tulane allowed the fewest yards passing in Conference USA, but that was misleading. Opponents threw sparingly because the Green Wave struggled to stop them on the ground.
Still, the pass defense appears improved. Converted wide receiver Jordan Sullen had a strong spring at cornerback, prompting Toledo to say he had NFL talent.
To break its bowl drought, Tulane will have to win at least seven times. The schedule includes a season-ending trip to Hawaii, and the Green Wave will play 13 games in 13 weeks.
The task won't be easy, but Griffin was encouraged when every returning player but kicker Cairo Santos participated in voluntary July conditioning work.
"We have more returning starters, more people that have played valuable minutes and more people that are truly invested in the program," Griffin said. "Getting to a bowl game is definitely the minimum without a doubt."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)