To a certain extent, it has been enlightening to watch conference realignment unfold and realize just how much of a role that timing has played in the proceedings. Five years ago, SMU and San Diego State would never have even sniffed a Big East bid even though they occupy two major media markets, but their programs have improved just enough to justify their invitations. Ten years ago, Missouri would not have been welcomed to the SEC, even with the two media markets within the state's borders, but the Tigers' current run of competency brought them aboard.
You don't have to be great to get "called up" to a league above yours, but you do have to be competent at the right time, at least if money and market size is in your favor.
If you are Tulsa, on the other hand, you are probably getting a little frustrated. You occupy a decent-sized market (barring perpetually ongoing highway construction, Tulsa is a lovely place to visit!), but it isn't quite big enough to garner notice (clearly the burgeoning Okmulgee suburb gets no respect here).
Meanwhile, your run of solid play -- seven winning seasons in nine years, 61 wins in seven years -- hasn't quite been great enough, either. You are a near-miss in both categories, and because of that, you are virtually grounded in Conference USA while teams over which you have been mostly superior through recent years got called up.
It is frustrating … but then again, along with Southern Miss, you are about to become the established co-king of Conference USA following the impending departures of Houston, UCF and SMU. And there is always something to be said for being a slightly bigger fish in a slightly smaller pond.
Whether or not the team is a draw to the Big East or any other conference (and evidently not), Tulsa further proved itself as an established, quality mid-major program in 2011. The Golden Hurricane survived a coaching change and the most brutal September schedule in the country to not only win eight games, but improve the quality of its product after a solid, if shady, coach (Todd Graham) left for a brief stay in Pittsburgh. And if it can withstand the loss of a couple of serious playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, the Hurricane could improve again in 2012 -- this time with a much lighter schedule.
Tulsa has been one of the most consistently solid mid-major programs this side of Hattiesburg, winning at least eight games (and making a bowl) in six of eight seasons, winning at least ten in three of the last four, and qualifying for three conference title games in six years. They've also won four bowl games in six years, matching the total they had amassed in their first 70+ years of existence at the Division I level. With the talent at play in the Tulsa area -- not every Tulsa Union and Jenks player is going to end up at a BCS school ... it only seems like it -- there is no reason that TU can't field at least a decent team every year, and in the past decade it has begun to realize its potential. […]
Without knowing what changes, if any, are in store with Blankenship and his staff, it's hard to completely know what to think about Tulsa's prospects for 2011, so I'm just going to press forward as if nothing will change. Tulsa returns as much proven talent on offense as anybody in Conference USA; Damaris Johnson is a star, G.J. Kinne appears to be a strong leader and the offensive line is strong and experienced. The defense lags behind a bit, but the front seven should be solid and Shawn Jackson's ceiling is extremely high. There's a lot to like here, so I'm going to assume Tulsa would be pretty good in 2011 no matter who happened to be head coach...
...as long as they survive September. The best Tulsa squad ever would probably still start 1-3 this season, with road trips to Oklahoma and Boise State and a visit from Oklahoma State. If they make it to October 1 with their spirit intact, however, they could get rolling just like they did last year. Trips to Rice and UTEP are far from intimidating, and the Golden Hurricane get SMU and Houston at home. Only the trip to UCF is a likely loss. Ten wins are unlikely unless TU wins the CUSA title game and their bowl, but their conference title hopes are strong.
Just about nailed it, aside from the whole "UCF is a likely loss" thing. Tulsa took its beatings in September (47-14 to Oklahoma, 59-33 to Oklahoma State, 41-21 to Boise State), then took off.
About halfway through the season, the offense clicked, and a surprisingly strong defense led the team to seven consecutive wins in October and November (average score: Tulsa 42, Opponent 19), and the Hurricane was in position to take the division title when Houston came to town over Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately, turnovers hampered the Golden Hurricane, and a 20-16 Houston lead turned into a 48-16 Houston win.
A tight loss to BYU in a fun Armed Forces Bowl finished off an 8-5 season that was both intriguing and a bit frustrating. Tulsa came up short of its first division title since 2008, and its did fall to BYU, but teams beating Tulsa finished with a combined record of 57-9. TU defeated every team on its schedule that didn't finish with double-digit wins. With quite a bit of depth returning across the board, that is something around which to build.
Tulsa has built quite a reputation over the years for fast-paced, balanced, explosive spread offenses. It was unclear how much would change under new coach (and local legend) Bill Blankenship. The answer: not much. The pace was dialed down a smudge, but the balance was still there, as was the general explosiveness. Tulsa proved capable of taking advantage of whatever weaknesses it uncovered. Running backs Ja'Terian Douglas and Trey Watts combined to rush for 332 yards versus Oklahoma State, while quarterback G.J. Kinne passed for 341 yards against UAB, 318 versus Rice and 314 versus North Texas.
That said, there was a bit of a dropoff in Tulsa's overall ratings -- falling from 26th to 43rd in Off. F/+. The Hurricane was sometimes hindered by turnovers (four against Boise State, four against UAB, three against Houston), fumbling 24 times and throwing 16 picks. But the main deterrent to strong overall numbers is simply that it took the team a while to get rolling.
Tulsa Offense (First 7 Games): 27.8 Adj. Points per game
Tulsa Offense (Next 4 Games): 35.1 Adj. Points per game
A full-season average of 27.8 Adj. PPG would have ranked 56th in the country. An average of 35.1, meanwhile, would have ranked third, behind just Wisconsin and Baylor. When the Golden Hurricane got rolling, everything clicked. There was a dropoff at the end of the season -- Tulsa laid a bit of an egg against Houston, and leading receiver Willie Carter's bowl absence led to an average performance -- but through much of late-October and November, Tulsa once again had one of the best offenses in the country. And it accomplished this without the services of receiver Damaris Johnson, a pre-season all-world candidate who was suspended all season following his part in his girlfriend's ho-hum, run-of-the-mill felony embezzlement arrest.
In Johnson's absence, Willie Carter turned into one of the more unique weapons in college football. An H-Back with the size of a small tight end (6'2, 221 pounds) and deceptive speed, Carter caught 61 of 93 passes for 868 yards, a nice combination of a 66-percent catch rate and 14.2 yards per catch. He and fellow 2012 senior Bryan Burnham each provided solid passing downs weapons for the since-departed Kinne, while now-junior Jordan James played well in a possession role. Tulsa must replace each of its top two tight ends, but the top four receivers all return. The question, then, is who will be throwing the ball to them?
The tentative answer appears to be Cody Green. Last seen backing up Taylor Martinez at Nebraska, Green is a former four-star recruit who acquitted himself at least reasonably well in Lincoln before transferring. Green completed eight of nine passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns in the Tulsa spring game, solidifying the job. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his hip in late-April but is expected to be ready for action this fall.
Like Kinne last year, Green will likely be asked to do his share of running (Kinne averaged about nine non-sack carries per game), but he will share the backfield with three lovely backs capable of limiting the hits he takes. Trey Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas and short-yardage back Alex Singleton combined for 2,060 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns and a plus-16.7 Adj. POE (meaning they were almost three touchdowns better than an average college back given their carries and opponents) last fall, and they were instrumental in Tulsa ranking 15th in Standard Downs Success Rate+.
With Watts, Douglas and quick passing, Tulsa was able to keep its leverage rate (ratio of standard downs to passing downs) high. Do the same with Green behind center despite the loss of all-conference guard Clint Anderson (it certainly bears mentioning that Tulsa only returns three linemen with starting experience), and he should thrive.
While the loss of Damaris Johnson was certainly more headline-worthy, the Tulsa defense seemingly suffered a loss of similar caliber when senior cornerback John Flanders was deemed academically ineligible right before the season began. But no worries. The front seven was so good -- and first-year coordinator Brent Guy was so effective with what he found -- that the Tulsa defense still improved by leaps and bounds.
The Golden Hurricane advanced from 85th to 38th in Def. F/+, from 51st to 12th against the run (according to Rushing S&P+) and from 84th to 30th against the pass (Passing S&P+). Guy took full advantage of what would become one of the best linebacking corps in the country, and the line ranked 24th in Adj. Line Yards and 36th in Adj. Sack Rate.
In 2012, Tulsa must replace two of its three star linebackers (including tackling machine Curnelius Arnick, who made an incredible 16 percent of Tulsa's tackles) and end Tyrunn Walker (13.5 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up in 2011), but a majority of the line returns, as do weakside linebacker Shawn Jackson and most of a decent secondary (including Flanders). If the depth is up to snuff, the defense could put together similar numbers in 2012.
Perhaps the key to Tulsa's success this fall will be the emergence of a couple of interesting redshirt freshmen from a large batch of candidates. Blankenship was able to redshirt a good portion of a relatively impressive 2011 recruiting class. Three-star middle linebacker Trent Martin will challenge Donnell Hawkins to replace Arnick, while three-star safety Michael Mudoh was listed as a co-starter at the end of the spring.
Meanwhile, two-star end Derrick Alexander and two-star tackle Derrick Luetjen nudged their way onto the second string. These players don't all have to turn into stars, but if a couple of them are ready to roll in September (and really, you could add three more incoming three-star freshmen to this list: end Cory Rahmings, linebacker Craig Suits and defensive back Darnell Walker, Jr.), Guy should have more than enough toys with which he can play.
Tulsa's defense was one of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season. The Golden Hurricane got lit up by some great offenses (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State and Houston all ranked in the Top 11 of Off. F/+ and averaged 49 points per game versus TU), but shut down everybody else (the other nine opponents averaged just 18 points per game), which gave the Hurricane great opponent-adjusted numbers. With Shawn Jackson, end Cory Dorris, safety Dexter McCoil and corners Flanders and Lowell Rose returning, Tulsa still has a lovely set of playmakers.
Tulsa lost the CUSA West division by one game to Houston last year, and Houston must replace quite a few cogs, including quarterback Case Keenum and coach Kevin Sumlin. Even with a challenging Thanksgiving trip to SMU on the docket, one would have to assume Tulsa fans will be disappointed if they aren't playing in the CUSA title game, no?
With an infinitely easier non-conference slate (Tulsa does have to travel to Arkansas, but Iowa State and Fresno State basically replace Oklahoma State and Boise State) and a load of interesting playmakers on both sides of the ball, the (mid-major) sky is the limit for the Golden Hurricane in 2012. It will certainly get challenged by trips to Houston and SMU, but it should be considered the favorite in the C-USA West. Tulsa's market might keep the team grounded in its current conference of residence, but that probably won't stop Blankenship from continuing to build off of the momentum Todd Graham established.