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Tulsa football, 2017 AAC champs? If this offense is truly plug-and-play, maybe so

If the Golden Hurricane have a QB, look out.

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulsa
D’Angelo Brewer
Joey Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“College football is so better when [Historically Great Team] is great.” We hear statements like that quite a bit. We all have our own definition of what makes this silly sport so enjoyable, but it frequently has to do with guys in certain helmets playing good ball.

Typically, that stems from who was good during the formative stages of our fandom. When a team is dominant as your impression of a sport is taking shape, it’s just going to feel natural when that team is dominant again at some later date.

That goes for salty mid-majors, too, at least in my book.

I grew up in Oklahoma, and while my formative years skewed more toward the mid- to late-1980s, when OU and Miami were running college football, my umbrella was only beginning to expand. Catching a mid-major — or even a lower-tier power conference team — on television was a rarity. But when I did catch one, I was fascinated.

I remember being fascinated by a school called Tulane when the Green Wave (coached by a young up-and-comer named Mack Brown) took on Washington in the 1987 Independence Bowl. I remember them taking the lead in the second quarter before succumbing.

I remember Maine playing on TV and loving the black-and-sky-blue uni combination.

I remember Tulsa falling in a tight one to Oregon in the 1989 Independence Bowl. And I remember Tulsa wrecking shop on most of its opponents two years later.

Dave Rader’s 1991 Golden Hurricane beat Oklahoma State, then knocked off No. 15 Texas A&M two weeks later. They lost only at a decent Kansas and to eventual national champion Miami at home. (It was scoreless after the first quarter before turnovers helped Miami ease ahead.)

They wrapped the season up by taking down San Diego State and running back Marshall Faulk, 28-17, in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim. Faulk rushed for 153 yards, but Tulsa’s Ron Jackson rushed for 211.

Tulsa didn’t do anything special; the Golden Hurricane were just good. And it seemed natural for them to be good. Though they would never again reach similar heights under Rader or successor Keith Burns, my impression was that it was Tulsa’s place in the world to be a salty mid-major capable of taking on anyone.

The program has lived up to that reputation more in the last 14 years than ever before. Steve Kragthorpe took the Golden Hurricane to three bowls in four years, then left for Louisville. Todd Graham engineered three 10-win seasons in four years, then left for Pitt. Bill Blankenship kept the ship sailing for two years before falling off, but Philip Montgomery needed almost no time at all to get the program back on course. From 2-10 in 2014, Tulsa has risen to 6-7 in 2015 and 10-3 in 2016.

Last fall saw the best Tulsa defense in three years and the best Tulsa offense in five. Most of the key defensive pieces are back, and on offense, the run game should be excellent again. The remodeled passing game will determine whether the Hurricane fall back toward minor bowl territory or threaten for the AAC crown.

Montgomery’s rebuild has been impressive, and it has begun to look comprehensive. Montgomery was Art Briles’ quarterbacks coach at Stephenville (Tex.) High School in the late-1990s and took on the same role at Houston in 2003. He followed Briles to Waco and served as offensive coordinator until he moved to Tulsa in 2015. Granted, being a Briles mentee has taken on different meaning over the last year or so, and the fact that Montgomery spent seven years with Briles in Waco leaves a “what did he know, and when?” impression that’s hard to shake, fair or unfair. But from a football perspective, what Baylor did on the field is an effective example to follow.

Montgomery’s version of the offense has just about reached plug-and-play automation (something that will be tested this year with the rebuilding of the passing game), and the defense fits the same aggressive mold that Baylor pulled off in Briles’ peak. The Hurricane get division rivals Navy, Houston, and Memphis at home — Temple, too, for that matter — and are basically a quarterback away from being a potential AAC favorite.


2016 in review

2016 Tulsa statistical profile.

One positive effect of teams that combine offensive efficiency with defensive aggression: it’s pretty easy to tell where they stand. If they have the athletes to make disruptive plays and force turnovers and three-and-outs on defense, then they do so. If they don’t have an athletic advantage, they probably don’t.

This is a pretty good recipe for manhandling inferior opposition but getting pushed around by better teams.

  • Tulsa vs. S&P+ top 60 (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 47% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, TU 5.9 | Avg. score: Opp 40, TU 33 | Avg. plays per game: Opp 78, TU 77
  • Tulsa vs. No. 61-plus (9-0): Avg. percentile performance: 63% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: TU 6.2, Opp 5.1 | Avg. score: TU 47, Opp 29 | Avg. plays per game: TU 90, Opp 78

Against lesser teams, Tulsa controlled the ball — both through offensive efficiency and the ability to make aggressive defensive stops — and wore opponents down. Against better opponents, their defense got burned more, and opponents were able to play keep-away enough to derive an advantage.

Granted, this effect was magnified by the fact that all four of Tulsa’s games against top-60 teams came on the road, but it’s pretty easy to see where the line was for the Hurricane. And it’s easy to see how important ball control was. That won’t change in 2017, but the onus might shift more to the offense.


Offense

Tulsa offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Maybe my favorite Ian Boyd piece for SB Nation is one from 2013, in which he lays out all the minor details of Briles’ offense, a.k.a. “college football’s most unstoppable system.”

First is Baylor's employment of the spread offense. Baylor's spread is more intense than most, with even the inside receivers lining up outside of the hash marks. Most every team in college football utilizes some aspect of spread tactics, but everything Baylor does is built around spacing out defenses so that individual matchups can be hammered.

On the outside, speed is king. Baylor sends every receiver vertical early and often in every game. In particular, they love that most defensive schemes match safeties or linebackers in coverage against their slot receivers, so they make a habit of using play action or vertical routes. That makes safeties have to turn and run with 4.4 sprinters like Reese. [...]

The Bear attack to the middle of the field is all about power. ... Baylor's run game is primarily based in inside zone and power-O blocking. Meaning, defensive linemen are constantly getting blocked at an angle or by double teams coming straight at them.

Baylor then pairs these running concepts with quarterback reads. Bryce Petty can either throw a perimeter screen or quick pass or keep the ball himself, based on his read of "overhang" defenders. These are the players who are being stressed to choose whether they'll align outside to run down a screen pass or inside to fill an interior running play. Read-option concepts guarantee those defenders are always wrong.

Of course, Baylor also has some of the best play-action as well. Old school, new school, it's all there in Waco.

Tulsa’s 2016 offense featured most of the necessary pieces for this dominant attack. The Golden Hurricane’s top three receivers combined to average 14 yards per catch, and their top two rushers averaged 5.9 yards per carry with above-average explosiveness. Quarterback Dane Evans didn’t quite have the mobility component necessary for full Baylorization, but this got pretty close. Tulsa ranked in the top 40 in both Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+ and combined third-down conversions (20th in FBS) with big plays (244 gains of 10-plus yards, 71 of 20-plus) and a relentless tempo in a way that made the attack unstoppable against most teams.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Navy
Justin Hobbs
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to assume that an offense like this becomes plug-and-play after a while? You lost your QB? Well, the next guy will do as well. Two 1,000-yard receivers are gone? Two more will emerge.

Montgomery’s only entering his third season in Tulsa, though. We don’t know for sure that he has been able to put together the pieces he needs for seamless production.

  • We don’t know that former star recruit Chad President is ready to begin living up to hype. He worked with the first string quite a bit this spring and went 12-for-20 in the spring game. He has potentially high-end mobility, too. But can he hit the vertical passes? And if he can’t, are sophomore Will Hefley III or redshirt freshman Luke Skipper ready to take over?
  • We don’t know if D’Angelo Brewer has a battery mate this year. Brewer and James Flanders combined to rush for 3,000 yards, but Flanders had the edge in both efficiency and explosiveness. Can senior Rowdy Simon or a sophomore like Corey Taylor II or big Javon Thomas live up to that standard?
  • We don’t know that the next two in line will match the production of inside receiver Keevan Lucas and outside receiver Josh Atkinson. They averaged 14.1 yards per catch with a 53 percent success rate; granted, junior Justin Hobbs averaged 13.7 per catch at 52 percent, but who steps up at inside receiver? Sophomore Keenen Johnson (10.2, 60 percent)? Senior Bishop Louie (7.0, 17 percent)? A three-star redshirt freshman (Josh Stewart, Jordan Brown) or true freshman (Sam Crawford, Keylon Stokes)?

We do know that Tulsa will have one of the best lines in the AAC; four of last year’s starters are back, including three all-conference guys: center Chandler Miller, guard Tyler Bowling, and tackle Evan Plagg. But we’ll pretty quickly find out if Tulsa is at plug-and-play status everywhere else.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Tulsa
Chad President
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Tulsa defensive radar

The philosophy of the post-Baylor defense is simple: you’ve got an explosive, relentless offense that is going to take a ton of snaps and score a ton of points. In theory, you just need to break serve a few times with your defense. You will allow points and yards, but if you can flip the field with a few three-and-outs and a couple of turnovers, it will be almost impossible for the opponent to keep up.

Tulsa lived that in 2016. The Golden Hurricane ranked eighth in FBS, allowing a 35.1 percent success rate; they also ranked 121st in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of those successful plays. They forced three-and-outs on 30 percent of their possessions (ninth) and forced 21 turnovers (53rd) while giving up 33 gains of 30-plus yards (92nd).

Tulsa defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Relatively speaking, the pass defense was further along than the run defense, though really, only three teams ran the ball well, and two (Ohio State and Navy, which combined to gain 658 yards at 5.9 per carry) ran well against most. That leaves only one abnormally awful performance: Tulane gained 355 yards at 7.2 per carry.

Tulsa returns six starters and most of its second stringers, but this could be a situation where strength gets stronger and weakness gets weaker. The run defense will certainly struggle to improve without its backbone — tackles Jerry Uwaezuoke and Hayden Carman, middle linebacker Trent Martin, and strong safety Jeremy Brady are all gone.

Granted, their departures could allow for a few veterans to thrive. Tackle Kolton Shindelar and linebacker Petera Wilson Jr., both seniors, combined for 12 tackles for loss last year in limited action. Of course, 9.5 were sacks. That doesn’t say much about run support.

If run defense does improve, it will probably be because of young heft. Sophomore tackle Shemarr Robinson (6’3, 307 pounds) is an exciting prospect, and three-star redshirt freshmen Johnnie Williams (6’3, 309) and Tyarise Stevenson (6’3, 340) packed on the pounds in their year off of the field.

NCAA Football: Miami Beach Bowl-Central Michigan vs Tulsa
McKinley Whitfield & Jesse Brubaker
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, though, the pass defense should be stupendous. Losing Brady hurts, but corners Kerwin Thomas, Reggie Robinson II, and Keanu Hill (combined: 22 passes defensed) all return, as do safeties Jordan Mitchell and McKinley Whitfield (14 passes defensed, 3.5 tackles for loss). The defensive backs didn’t create as much havoc as you’d like to see in this type of defense, but they could with better experience.

Meanwhile, a pass rush that ranked a disappointing 90th in Adj. Sack Rate should improve. First, Shindelar and Wilson are both excellent pass rushers who will see the field more. Second, senior ends Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith (combined: 21.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks) return, as does linebacker Craig Suits (9 TFLs, 3.5 sacks).

Assuming Tulsa can actually leverage opponents into passing downs, they should be able to capitalize. But that’s assumption is far from certain.

NCAA Football: Miami Beach Bowl-Central Michigan vs Tulsa
Craig Suits
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Tulsa ranked 49th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2016 despite a couple of sketchy coverage units. Place-kicker Redford Jones is excellent in the field goals department (17-for-18 under 40 yards, 67-for-67 on PATs), but he rarely reached the end zone with his kickoffs. Meanwhile, punter Dalton Parks averaged a decent 41.8 yards per kick but also allowed 8.3 yards per return.

Parks is gone, which could be an issue if Tulsa has to punt a hair more. Still, this unit should be a net positive. Jones assures Tulsa of points even when scoring opportunities stall out, and both Bishop Louie (kick returns) and Keidrien Wadley (punt returns) are somewhere between solid and awesome.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Oklahoma State 22 -17.8 15%
9-Sep UL-Lafayette 112 12.0 76%
16-Sep at Toledo 59 -8.3 31%
23-Sep New Mexico 110 11.8 75%
30-Sep Navy 71 1.1 52%
7-Oct at Tulane 94 3.1 57%
14-Oct Houston 49 -4.4 40%
21-Oct at Connecticut 125 11.5 75%
27-Oct at SMU 81 -0.1 50%
3-Nov Memphis 61 -3.0 43%
18-Nov at South Florida 56 -8.5 31%
25-Nov Temple 67 -1.8 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 77
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 78 / 68
Projected wins 5.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.8 (87)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 87 / 84
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 2.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (29%, 75%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.7 (0.3)

What I see in Tulsa: a team that is led by one of college football’s better offensive minds and features a defense with enough experience to improve on last year’s No. 77 Def. S&P+ ranking.

If we assume a high floor for the offense, and defensive improvement offsets minor offensive regression, then Tulsa is a potential top-50 team that could be favored in up to 10 games and will have a serious role in the AAC West race.

What S&P+ sees in Tulsa: a team that has to replace a disturbing amount of its passing attack with no proven replacements. The Hurricane return only 29 percent of last year’s offensive production, a level that almost guarantees regression, and they are projected to fall to 78th in Off. S&P+ because of it.

With a No. 77 overall projection, S&P+ sees Tulsa laboring to reach bowl eligibility, thanks to a schedule that features lots of tough home games and trips to Oklahoma State, Toledo, and USF.

Really, then, this season comes down to the plug-and-play status of the offense. If Montgomery’s system is to the point where it can function at a high level no matter who is throwing or catching passes, then Tulsa’s going to be an excellent team this year. But it’s hard to get a read on what this team has in the receiving corps, and it takes a lot of trust in Montgomery to assume the best.

Of course, Montgomery has earned some trust on offense, hasn’t he?


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.