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Under Philip Montgomery, Tulsa has become even *less* stable. I didn’t think that was possible.

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On paper, the Golden Hurricane could struggle to rebound from a 10-loss 2017. But on paper, they weren’t supposed to lose 10 games to begin with.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Tulsa David D. Stacy-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It is one of college football’s laws: teams that were good or bad one year are likely to be good or bad the next. But when you’re based in Oklahoma and call yourself the Golden Hurricane, laws of nature don’t really apply.

Tulsa has a fear of commitment. In 86 years of top-division football, the Golden Hurricane have won at least eight games 25 times and three or fewer 20 times. In just this century, they’ve gone 2-10 or worse four times and 10-4 or better five times. Their win total has changed by at least four games in four of the last five years: 11-3, 3-9, 2-10, 6-7, 10-3, 2-10.

That is absurd.

You’d think, then, that we would’ve seen last year coming. For every peak, a valley, right? But 2017’s Tulsa tumble was as confusing as it was precipitous.

In 2016, Montgomery’s squad won 10 games thanks to sustained offensive improvement and sudden defensive competence. They remained in the top 40 in Off. S&P+ but improved from 122nd to 77th in Def. S&P+. They outscored opponents by an average of 12.6 points and came within a two-point loss at Navy of winning the AAC West.

The defensive improvement came from a no-holds-barred attitude. Tulsa ranked eighth in success rate and 121st in IsoPPP (a big-play measure that looks at the magnitude of one’s successful plays). Montgomery came from Baylor, where teams were winning aggressively. And since the 2017 squad was returning a lot of its havoc guys — ends Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith, linebacker Craig Suits, ball-hawking DBs Jordan Mitchell, Kerwin Thomas, and Reggie Robinson II — why would there be a drop-off?

Mitchell tore his ACL three games into the season, but even before he went out, the recipe was all wrong. The Hurricane had begun by allowing 59 points to Oklahoma State, 42 to UL Lafayette, and 54 to Toledo. A retooled offense was holding up, but the defense was off the rails. And by the time it stabilized, the offense had run into its own issues, breaking in a freshman quarterback and basically only trusting about four skill players to touch the ball.

In a conference with a pronounced middle class, Tulsa’s fall meant going from nearly 12 winnable games to nearly none. The Hurricane lost all four one-possession games but also lost four by 21 or more. They randomly smoked Houston in mid-October, but it was their only win after Week 2.

This was basically a reversion to 2015 form, only Tulsa took on a lighter slate that year, won its close games, and eked out a bowl bid. Last year, they were no match for a schedule that featured four 10-win teams, four more bowl squads, and a total of eight teams ranked 80th or better in S&P+.

After three seasons in charge, Montgomery’s average record at Tulsa is a seemingly boring 6-7 despite 10-win and 10-loss seasons. He is staying the course in 2018. He kept defensive coordinator Bill Young, two quarterbacks and most of his receivers, and a secondary that was obliterated by injury gets most of last year’s pieces back.

But the schedule is just as brutal. There are nine opponents projected 85th or better, so Tulsa better have a pretty significant rebound in store to keep up.

Of course, this is Tulsa. Rebounds are de rigueur.

Offense

In 2017, we got an answer to a question we’d never thought to ask: What happens if a Baylor-style offense can’t pass? Tulsa maintained a lot of its key offensive characteristics from 2016 — a lack of negative plays, a lot of big rushes, manageable third downs, and maybe the most ridiculous tempo in the country.

Only, the Hurricane went from 14th in passing success rate to 122nd. Dane Evans had completed 60 percent of his passes at 12.9 yards per completion in 2016; Chad President, a former star recruit, completed 53 percent at 11.1 per completion.

The loss of not only Evans, but also star receivers Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson (who had combined for 160 catches and a 53 percent success rate in 2016), meant quite the reset. The new leading receiving duo of Justin Hobbs and Keenen Johnson had only 99 catches and a 40 percent success rate. And no other target caught more than 22 passes.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Oklahoma State
Justin Hobbs
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

President was an outstanding runner, averaging 7.7 yards over 62 non-sack rushes, but opponents had no reason to fear the pass. Three-star redshirt freshman Luke Skipper took over behind center five games in, and things didn’t really get any better. The passing game improved — Skipper completed 56 percent of his passes at 16.1 yards per completion — but he took far more sacks, and after a transcendent burst, freshman running back Shamari Brooks broke his collar bone.

D’Angelo Brewer averaged 31 carries per game over the final four games of his career, but an increase in negative plays doomed the Hurricane offense.

  • Tulsa offense, first 5 games (with President as starter): Avg. points per game: 35.0 | Avg. yards per play: 5.8 | Avg. percentile performance: 47%
  • Tulsa offense, last 7 games (with Skipper as starter): Avg. points per game: 25.3 | Avg. yards per play: 5.6 | Avg. percentile performance: 38%

Skipper suffered a concussion against USF, so President was back for the finale ... until he tore his ACL. The injury scuffled any major QB controversy this spring — Skipper and redshirt freshman Seth Boomer took the snaps in President’s absence.

With good health, there’s a lot to like about an all-sophomore backfield of Skipper and Brooks. Brooks finished his abbreviated first year with 687 yards at 5.8 yards per carry, and despite inexperience he was more efficient than Brewer. Junior Corey Taylor II also battled injury (I’m sensing a theme here) but averaged 5.3 yards per carry in limited action, and Ramadi Warren (6.7 yards per carry in 2015) could be a weapon if he gets his grades under control. He was present and solid this spring.

The line was the most stable unit on the offense, with four guys starting all 12 games and a fifth starting nine. Three multi-year starters are back, including two second-team all-AAC guys (center Chandler Miller and left guard Tyler Bowling), and big left tackle Waahid Muhammad saw three starts as well. This line should continue to be an asset in the run game.

Hobbs and Johnson are both back, but it would be great if Tulsa QBs could lean on a larger rotation. They combined for nearly two-thirds of Tulsa’s receiver targets last year — that’s kind of a thing for Montgomery, who doesn’t play a large rotation as a whole (Lucas and Atkinson had 58 percent of team targets in 2016). But in theory a pair of three-star sophomores, Josh Stewart and Keylon Stokes, could insert themselves.

Stokes caught only six passes in 2017 but had a 52-yard reception against Tulane, a 44-yarder against Memphis, and a 24-yarder against USF. Plus, Sam Crawford Jr., the star of the 2017 recruiting class, could be ready to make a difference, too.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at South Florida
Luke Skipper
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Power to Montgomery for staying the course. Typically when an offense or defense collapses, you fire the coordinator just to show you’re making changes. Montgomery didn’t do that, electing to retain the veteran Young, who will turn 72 right before his 50th coaching season this fall.

Young’s first college coordinator job came at Tulsa in 1983, and this will almost certainly be his last one. Can he engineer another rebound before retiring? It’s hard to be too optimistic, but it would help if his two-deep was a bit more stable. Of nine semi-regular linemen, five missed time last year, and of 11 semi-regular DBs, only three played in all 12 games. Losing Mitchell hurt, but corner Keanu Hill missed all season, and replacement safeties Manny Bunch and Keidrien Wadley missed a combined nine games, too.

Montgomery and Young are hoping options create competition. Five linemen, three linebackers, and about eight defensive backs return after seeing a good amount of playing time last year, but Montgomery still went out and signed seven JUCO defenders, including five three-stars: tackle JaJuan Blankenship, linebackers TieNeal Martin and Yohance Burnett, cornerback Malik Welch, and safety Brandon Johnson.

So now we just have to wait and see if there’s actual talent.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at South Florida
Diamon Cannon (6) and McKinley Whitfield (5)
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Reggie Robinson II has defensed 16 passes in two seasons, and strong safety McKinley Whitfield combined six tackles for loss with nine passes defensed in 2017. Junior linebacker Diamon Cannon flashed play-making potential as well, but most of the other known havoc guys are gone. There’s hope in the fact that, with so many sophomores and juniors in the rotation, whoever emerges in 2018 will return in 2019. But I guess that’s more of a future-tense thing, not a present-tense thing.

At least size won’t be an issue. Sophomore Tyarise Stevenson is listed at 6’3, 340 pounds, and junior Shemarr Robinson is a small-by-comparison 6’3, 307. Plus, Cannon and middle linebacker Cooper Edmiston are each at least 6’2 and 232 pounds, while nearly every DB on the roster is listed at 6’0 or taller. We see what Montgomery’s going for here, but he’s still only had one decent defense in three seasons. He and Young bear some pretty significant burden of proof.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Oklahoma State
Reggie Robinson II
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams was both a strength and weakness. Kicker Redford Jones was an asset, ranking 37th in FG efficiency while placing nearly half of his kickoffs for touchbacks. But the return game was inefficient (I’m talking about kick returns here — opponents didn’t punt), and Thomas Bennett’s punts didn’t travel far enough (42.3-yard average with minimal fair catches) to justify allowing 8.5 yards per return.

Jones is gone, while Bennett and Keylon Stokes, the lead return man, are back. So strength gets weaker, and weakness gets stronger, maybe?? The former is more likely than the latter.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Central Arkansas NR 7.9 68%
8-Sep at Texas 27 -21.3 11%
15-Sep Arkansas State 66 -8.1 32%
20-Sep at Temple 81 -9.8 29%
4-Oct at Houston 59 -13.8 21%
12-Oct USF 56 -9.2 30%
20-Oct at Arkansas 52 -15.4 19%
27-Oct Tulane 98 -0.1 50%
3-Nov Connecticut 124 8.1 68%
10-Nov at Memphis 42 -16.7 17%
17-Nov at Navy 85 -8.4 31%
24-Nov SMU 74 -5.7 37%
Projected S&P+ Rk 108
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 46 / 126
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -6.4 (98)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 87 / 89
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -1.3
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (77%, 66%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.5 (-0.5)

I should forego making any sort of prediction for Tulsa, I realize, but here goes nothing.

Montgomery’s Golden Hurricane are projected 108th overall — 46th on offense and 126th on defense. That is sensible; the offense has been Montgomery’s strength and returns a ton of pieces, while the albatross defense has to replace a majority of its known play-makers.

Given that projection, the 2018 schedule looks brutal: Tulsa is the projected favorite in only three games and gets an average win total of 4.1. But if the defense rebounds to 2016 levels, the projected win total pretty quickly increases.

We’ll know what we need to know by Week 3, I think. That’s when Arkansas State comes to town. The Red Wolves are projected 66th in S&P+ and are therefore picked to win by about eight. If Tulsa is eight points worse than ASU at home, doom is on the way. But if the Golden Hurricane can win that one, it will buy them some time and space until the schedule eases up later on.

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