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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 39: Tulsa

Tulsa lost to Oklahoma. Lost to Oklahoma State. Lost to Boise State. Lost to Houston. Lost to B.Y.U. in bowl play. Five losses to teams that combined for – let’s do the math – 57 wins. Both Oklahoma and B.Y.U. went 10-3. Oklahoma State and Boise State went 12-1, both losing disappointing conference games in November; without those losses, one of the two would have met L.S.U. in the national title game. Houston went 13-1, coming within a win in the Conference USA championship of earning an automatic B.C.S. berth, if not its own date with the Tigers in New Orleans. Only one of Tulsa’s eight wins came by less 17 points. So, the question: Was Tulsa that good, or was Conference USA that bad? There’s no doubt that the league as a whole was weaker than in the past, even if Conference USA put forth a pair of national contenders; however, this shouldn’t detract too much from what the Golden Hurricane were able to achieve under Bill Blankenship, the former Todd Graham assistant who has ably steered T.U. through another coaching change without a hiccup.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Tulsa, Okla.

Nickname
Golden Hurricane

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 40

2011 record
(8-5, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 41

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Iowa St.
  • Sept. 8
    Tulane
  • Sept. 15
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 22
    Fresno St.
  • Sept. 29
    at U.A.B.
  • Oct. 6
    at Marshall
  • Oct. 11
    UTEP
  • Oct. 20
    Rice
  • Nov. 3
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 10
    at Houston
  • Nov. 17
    U.C.F.
  • Nov. 24
    at S.M.U.

Last year’s prediction

There’s just too much talent not to succeed, to be honest, particularly on offense but also on the defensive side of the ball. Kinne is one of Conference USA’s best quarterbacks; the offensive line is in fine shape; the receiver corps has talent, though some shoes must be filled; and there are some definite strong points defensively, like at end and linebacker. In all, Tulsa is ready to roll into another eight-win season. Now, if Graham and his crew had returned in 2011 I would have placed the Golden Hurricane atop the conference altogether and right where they ended last year, hovering around a national ranking. But the changes will take their toll, at least somewhat, and I wonder if Tulsa can keep up its current pace given the transition. Until we know what Blankenship and this staff are made of, this is a fair landing spot for the Golden Hurricane.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Tulsa ended the year right where most expected: just behind Houston in the West division. Similarly, most expected that Tulsa would struggle against such a stout non-conference schedule before turning it on in conference play. Everything went according to script. The only factor keeping the Golden Hurricane from a more banner season, in fact, is that they couldn’t hang a little closer with an Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Boise State in September. But Tulsa showed its worth when given the chance to take on bowl teams in Marshall and S.M.U., beating the Thundering Herd and Mustangs by a combined 63 points.

High point Those two conference wins against future bowl participants. Overall, the Golden Hurricane would win seven straight games from Sept. 24, when it lost to Boise State, to Nov. 25, when it lost to Houston in the regular season finale.

Low point A win over the Cougars would have earned the Golden Hurricane a berth in the Conference USA title game against the Golden Eagles; based on that fact, the loss is likely the low point of the season. But Tulsa gave away the Armed Forces Bowl against B.Y.U., losing on a late touchdown pass from Riley Nelson to Cody Hoffman – a fake-spike-pass, which made it doubly painful.

Tidbit Tulsa played four of the nation’s top 18 teams last fall, according to the final A.P. Poll – No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Boise State, No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 18 Houston. But each of these teams were ranked among the top eight nationally in the A.P. Poll when they met Tulsa during the regular season. Oklahoma (47-14) was ranked No. 1 nationally in both polls on Sept. 3. Oklahoma State (59-33) was No. 8 in the A.P. and No. 7 in the USA Today Poll on Sept. 18. Boise State (41-21) was No. 4 in both polls a week later. Houston (48-16) was No. 8 in the A.P. and No. 7 in the USA Today when it met Tulsa on Nov. 25.

Tidbit (East division edition) The Golden Hurricane have taken advantage of the Conference USA East division since joining the league in 2005. After going 3-0 last fall – beating U.A.B., U.C.F. and Marshall – Tulsa is 18-6 overall against the East over the last seven years. The Golden Hurricane opened with seven straight wins against the division until losing to U.C.F. on Oct. 20, 2007; they’d lose another to the Knights in 2007, dropping the Conference USA title game, 44-25. Tulsa’s four remaining losses against the East division: East Carolina in 2008 – also in the conference championship game – E.C.U. and Southern Mississippi in 2009 and E.C.U., again, in 2010.

Tidbit (offense edition) Tulsa has gained 500 or more yards 36 times since the start of the 2007 season – a total of 65 games – including three times a season ago. The Golden Hurricanes have also scored 40 or more points 28 times over the same span. As you’d expect, T.U. is pretty hard to beat when it gains at least 500 yards of offense and score 40 or more points in the same game: 22-3 over the last five years.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 LB Chris Chamberlain (New Orleans), FB Charles Clay (Miami), OG Tyler Holmes (Minnesota), WR Damaris Johnson (Philadelphia), DE Odrick Ray (Jacksonville), DE Tyrunn Walker (New Orleans).

Arbitrary top five list

F.B.S. coaches whose first, last names begin with “B”
1. Bobby Bowden (West Virginia, Florida State).
2. Bernie Bierman (Mississippi State, Tulane, Minnesota).
3. Bret Bielema (Wisconsin).
4. Branch Bocock (Georgia, U.N.C., L.S.U., Virginia Tech).
5. Billy Brewer (Louisiana Tech, Mississippi).

Coaching

Bill Blankenship (Tulsa ’79), 8-5 entering his second season. Prior to being hired, Blankenship spent four years as an assistant under Todd Graham, coaching the wide receivers in 2007, the special teams in 2008, the special teams and running backs in 2009 and, in 2010, adding the associate head coach title to his duties. So he did more and more each year, taking on stronger and more significant tasks with each season; that’s why, once Graham left for Pittsburgh, Blankenship was promoted to take his spot — and not former offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was only on campus for a single season. That’s just one reason why Blankenship got the nod, however. Take note of his ties to the program, which date back to his playing days: Blankenship was Tulsa’s starting quarterback in 1977 and 1979. And then there are his years and years of superb service on the high school ranks in the state, which ended with a 14-year stint at Union High School, where he compiled a 154-26 mark with three Oklahoma state titles. This coaching experience was what attracted Graham and Tulsa to Blankenship in the first place, and it surely played a huge role in him being hired as head coach prior to last season. But was it a wise move by the program? Here’s one positive: unlike his two predecessors, you do get the feeling that Blankenship is in this for the long haul. He won’t be using Tulsa as a launching pad towards a Louisville or Pittsburgh, I don’t think. In addition, Blankenship was a key piece of the coaching staff over the program’s final four-year run under Graham. What about the negatives? He was an inexperienced college coach, by and large. Tulsa has also done a nice job over its last two hires by looking outside the program, though Graham had been one of Kragthorpe’s assistants before returning to Tulsa in 2007. There were some question marks heading into last season, but Blankenship answered most concerns with a very satisfying debut. Barring a downturn – and I can’t see that happening – Blankenship will be at T.U. for years to come.

Players to watch

This team is going to have a hard time replacing G.J. Kinne, the former Texas transfer who had a superb three-year run as Tulsa’s starting quarterback. It’s not merely about his production, though that was impressive even in a league dominated by top-level quarterback play; it’s also about Kinne’s place as the Golden Hurricane’s leader, the clear and undisputed face of an offense that averaged 37.2 points per game over the last two seasons. So Kinne’s replacement faces a battle on two fronts: he must give T.U. an adequate level of production while also serving as the centerpiece of an attack that has reached a tipping point – anything less than excellence is simply unacceptable.

The new starter will be another former Big 12 transfer: Cody Green, late of Nebraska, outplayed sophomore Kalen Henderson to cement the starting job coming out of spring ball. Both spent last season in the system, though Green, due to transfer rules, was not eligible for game action. The backup was Henderson, who did not fare well when called upon: he went 6 of 20 for 104 yards with 3 interceptions in the loss to Oklahoma State. So barring injury or a collapse during fall camp, Green will be Tulsa’s man. What can T.U. expect?

Green can make every throw in the playbook; he’s a strong-armed, big-bodied quarterback with a spread background, and the latter likely helped him grasp Tulsa’s offense during his season spent on the sidelines. But Green has his faults, with one looming larger than all: inadequate pocket presence. Some of this can be tied back to poor coaching at Nebraska; he was thrown into the mix way ahead of schedule, starting a handful of games as a true freshman in 2009, and was used haphazardly as Taylor Martinez’s backup a year later – often deep in his own territory, seemingly never in a position where he could make something happen.

Being taken out of the spotlight will help Green, as will last year’s redshirt season. He needed to catch his breath; Green needed some time away from the game, in my opinion, and watching Kinne run this offense last fall had to help him see the game in a different way. One thing Tulsa should not expect is Kinne-like production on the ground, as Green is not very agile – though he is a solid straight-ahead runner. He is gifted and has potential, but it’s going to take Green some time to steady his feet. But by year’s end, Green could give T.U. more explosiveness in the passing game.

And if last year is any indication, Blankenship and his staff can help take pressure off of Green with a very talented backfield. The top two remains the same: Trey Watts (881 yards) and Ja’Terian Douglas (900 yards, 7.9 yards per carry), both juniors, paved the way for the Golden Hurricane a year ago. As much as any program in the country, Tulsa will share the wealth; Watts had 157 carries, Douglas 114 carries, and the pair combined for five 100-yard games – both cracking the century mark against Oklahoma State. Behind this pair is senior Alex Singleton (279 yards and 8 scores), the short-yardage back. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Zack Langer, who could squeeze the two incumbents for touches during conference play.

One pressing issue heading into last fall was finding a replacement for H-back Charles Clay, one of the team’s top receiving targets over his four seasons with the program. It turned out not to be a problem at all: Tulsa landed terrific play from his replacement, senior Willie Carter (61 receptions for 868 yards), the team leader in catches and receiving yards. The Golden Hurricane also return a pair of starting receivers in senior Bryan Burnham (54 for 850, 9 scores) and junior Jordan James (31 for 391), both of whom burst onto the scene after serving in secondary roles – very secondary roles – heading into last fall. Joining this pair in the starting lineup is sophomore Keyarris Garrett, a lanky and athletic target who should give T.U. another option in the red zone.

There’s talent on the second level, but not much experience. Junior Freeman Kelley will take on a larger role with the offense after contributing primarily on special teams last fall. Another former Nebraska transfer, Khiry Cooper, could see more playing time as he gains a firmer hold on the offense. Tulsa also has a number of sophomores and redshirt freshmen angling for a spot in the rotation, like Thomas Robinson, Derek Patterson, Zach Epps and Conner Floyd, among others. One position that might be slightly phased out in 2012 is tight end, where the Golden Hurricane will attempt to replace a very valuable safety valve in Clay Sears; the team has no experienced tight ends to chose from.

They go hand in hand: Tulsa’s ability to rush the quarterback a year ago had a profound impact on the Golden Hurricane’s ability to defend the pass – or, conversely, the team’s solid coverage skills gave the front seven ample opportunities to bring pressure on the quarterback. We might find an answer to this riddle this fall, when T.U. returns the lion’s share of depth and experience in its secondary but must find a replacement for end Tyrunn Walker, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss as a senior. Another hole exists at middle linebacker, where Tulsa must replace a sideline-to-sideline menace in Curnelius Arnick, a first-team all-Conference USA selection in his final season.

Let’s start up front, where sophomore Brentom Todd (16 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and senior Jared St. John (12 tackles, 2.5 for loss) are competing for Walker’s former spot at end. A third option is redshirt freshman Derrick Alexander, who was one of the top defensive prospects in Oklahoma as a high school senior. One of these three – if not some combination of the entire group – will team with senior Cory Dorris (55 tackles, 6.5 for loss), a multiple-year starter. As a whole, these ends need to cobble together a consistent pass rush; Dorris has the explosive potential, as seen by his play on special teams – he also had an outstanding spring – but T.U. may be looking for some situational burst from Todd and Alexander.

Depth along the interior of the line was an issue heading into last season. It’s no longer a concern: Tulsa goes four deep inside – if not more, if a few youthful tackles step up – with senior starters Daeshon Bufford (33 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and Derrick Jackson (25 tackles, 5.5 for loss) joined by reserves Joe King and Jack Jewell. You saw some early growing pains last fall, when Tulsa allowed an average of 148.0 rushing yards per game over its first five, but the interior developed into one of Conference USA’s best groups over the latter stages of the season; from Oct. 15 through the end of the year, T.U. allowed an average of 116.3 yards per game.

Tulsa runs a 4-3, but not really – if you know what I mean. Yes, defensive coordinator Brent Guy did shift Tulsa into a four-linemen formation, but the back seven retained much of the previous staff’s flair; there are two somewhat interchangeable linebacker-defensive backs, and it’s this flexibility, this scheme that stresses the team’s overall speed, that continues to make this defense one of the more dangerous in Conference USA – and you see this in the team’s continued ability to force turnovers.

But Arnick is a big loss on the second level. For now, Tulsa is working out two possible replacements, junior Donnell Hawkins and redshirt freshman Trent Martin, with that decision coming during fall camp. Guy and this defensive staff are even auditioning a handful of linebackers at one of the outside spots, but I’d be shocked if that job doesn’t eventually go to senior DeAundre Brown (25 tackles), whose once-promising career has been sidelined over the last two seasons by injuries and academic difficulties. He was on a skyrocketing trajectory over his first two seasons: Brown earned all-Freshman honors from Conference USA as a freshman and led the team in tackles as a sophomore. But he missed the 2010 due to academics and never got back in the flow last fall, when an early-season injury left him scrambling to regain a spot in the rotation over the year’s second half.

If he’s healthy, Brown can help Tulsa retain some of the big-play production and flash Arnick brought to the table as a senior. The Golden Hurricane’s other options include DeWitt Jennings (25 tackles), an experienced junior who started four games in 2010. The weak side will again be manned by junior Shawn Jackson (101 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 4.5 sacks), the new star of the front seven. Now playing outside of Arnick’s shadow, Jackson is a very heavy contender for conference defensive player of the year honors.

Where Tulsa really excels is in the secondary. This is Conference USA’s best group – deep, experienced, athletic and opportunistic, the Golden Hurricane’s defensive backfield has shown an ability to completely dominate most opposing pass defenses; Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore and Case Keenum had their ways with T.U., but that trio had their ways with everyone, by and large. This secondary loses only one piece of its rotation in cornerback Milton Howell, but T.U. won’t look far for his replacement: John Flanders, a senior, earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2010 before missing last season to focus on his academics.

So slide Flanders into the mix, hope he doesn’t miss a beat, and watch Tulsa’s secondary go to work. Flanders will be joined at cornerback by senior Lowell Rose (35 tackles, 1 interception), a former U.C.L.A. transfer who made nine starts a year ago; this defense also returns senior Justin Skillens and sophomore Dwight Dobbins, who combined to make four starts in Rose’s absence, as well as former JUCO transfer J.D. Ratliff. Back at free safety is junior Marco Nelson (73 tackles), though he missed spring ball due to injury – giving a few younger defensive backs, like sophomore Kwame Sexton and redshirt freshman Michael Mudoh, some time with the first-team defense. And then there’s the best defensive back in the conference, senior Dexter McCoil (84 tackles, 6 interceptions), who can hit like a linebacker and run like a cornerback. This is a superb group.

Kevin Fitzpatrick worked double duties last fall, so Tulsa needs to find a new kicker and a new punter. The latter will be sophomore Cole Way, whose older brother, Tress, once did same for Oklahoma; Way actually punted 34 times last fall, so he’s not a new face, per se. The new kicker will be a true freshman: Daniel Schwarz – who chose Tulsa over offers from Alabama, T.C.U. and Texas – will need to deliver Fitzpatrick-like consistency on shorter field goals as a rookie. This team will be fine in the return game, but keep this in mind: T.U. will use a new full-time punter, a new kicker, a new long snapper and a new holder in 2012.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The Golden Hurricane return a pair of starters but must rebuild at tackle, which could have an adverse effect on this line’s ability to protect the passer. A year ago, Tulsa was fortunate to land very steady tackle play from Tyler Holmes and Matt Romine, the latter a former Notre Dame transfer who took advantage of the graduate-student loophole that allowed him to spend his final season of eligibility with the program. His arrival really solidified the entire line, giving T.U. five clear-cut starters – and the same line started every possible game but two.

You’ll see movement up front as Blankenship and line coach Denver Johnson look to fill the gaps. The biggest move: Brian DeShane, a senior, will move out from right guard to tackle. He was only other linemen outside the top five to start last fall, when he replaced an injured Stetson Burnett for the final two games of the season. If healthy, Burnett will retain his spot at right guard and senior Trent Dupy at center, giving T.U. a strong and experienced trio from center through right tackle. If Burnett can’t go – or if he struggles getting backing into game form – the Golden Hurricane will go with junior Gabe Moyer, who did a nice job filling Burnett’s shoes during the spring.

The issue is the left side of the line. Between the two, former left tackle Tyler Holmes and former left guard Clint Anderson combined for 83 career starts; it’s almost assured that T.U. is going suffer some sort of letdown when breaking in a pair of new starters. At least senior Jared Grigg is no rookie: he’s played in 25 career games, though he’s yet to earn a starting nod. Sophomore Jake Alexander, the projected starter at left guard, did not play much at all as the backup center last fall. With a brand-new starter at quarterback, you’d wish that T.U. had a stronger pair to team on the blind side. And along with quarterback, line play is the offense’s biggest concern heading into September.

Game(s) to watch

Iowa State might not be the best team in the Big 12, but the Cyclones are going to be very tough for T.U. to handle in the season opener – partly because the game is in Ames, and also because the Golden Hurricane will break in a new starter at quarterback and will have a hard time containing the Cyclones’ front seven. From that point forward, however, look for Tulsa to roll of an extended winning streak before the schedule ramps up in November. Over its last four games, Tulsa takes on Arkansas, Houston and S.M.U. on the road and gets U.C.F. at home. That’s going to provide a major test. But T.U. should be playing with confidence at that point, though the Razorbacks are probably going to take some wind out of the Golden Hurricane’s sails. The season comes down to Houston: a win means the West division title and a berth in the conference title game.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Settle the situation up front, land steady play at quarterback, replace the two stalwarts along the front seven, win Conference USA. It’s that simple for Tulsa, which could make a very strong case for being the league’s best if not for its subtle question marks on both sides of the ball. Helping matters is a schedule that could send this team into November at 8-0, should the Golden Hurricane click in early-season games against Iowa State, Fresno State and Marshall. The team is this good: T.U. needs only to amend a few outstanding concerns to make a push for a double-digit win season. But it’s not that easy, of course.

Green is going to need time to not only grasp this system – one he’s yet to showcase in live game action – but also to regain some of the composure he lost over his two topsy-turvy seasons at Nebraska. That his blind side will be protected by two inexperienced offensive linemen is a significant concern; the line in general should be strong from the start in paving the way for the run, but Grigg in particular must be up to task of serving as Green’s protector. The defense has the potential for substantial improvement, especially with a strong interior of the line and one of the deepest and most experienced defensive backfields in recent program history. But who picks up the slack in the pass rush? Can T.U. find a defender capable of matching all that Arnick brought to the table at middle linebacker?

It’s these concerns that make Tulsa the second-best team in the West division, again behind Houston – if only by the slimmest of margins. But in a way, what I love about the Golden Hurricane is that each of these issues is correctable; they’re not depth issues, which are unfixable, but rather issues with overall experience, or lack thereof. Therefore, there are red flags that can conceivably be answered by the time T.U. heads into November. If Blankenship and his staff seal up these holes… well, Tulsa may very well end the season in the Top 25. For now, however, these same question marks have me pegging Tulsa for an eight-win regular season with the potential for nine wins.

Dream season Tulsa doesn’t lose a game over the year’s first two months but opens November with a loss at Arkansas. The Golden Hurricane recover to notch three very impressive wins to cap the regular season, heading into the Conference USA title game at 11-1 overall and 8-0 in league play.

Nightmare season An ugly loss at Iowa State sets a poor tone for the entire season. Tulsa goes onto to lose games to Fresno State, Marshall, Arkansas, Houston and U.C.F., finishing with only six wins.

In case you were wondering

Where do Tulsa fans congregate? T.U. message boards can be found at Inside Tulsa Sports and Tulsa Insider. You can also find recruiting coverage at both sites. More information can be found at the Web site of The Tulsa World, though the paper focuses much more on Oklahoma’s big two F.B.S. programs than on the Golden Hurricane.

Tulsa’s all-name nominee LB Chris Hummingbird.

Word Count

Through 86 teams 341,042.

Up Next

Who is No. 38? Tomorrow’s program went 4-1 last fall when throwing exactly one interception and 4-2 when throwing exactly one touchdown.

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Comments

  1. Cal says:

    Cal Bears are next.

  2. Scott Wallace says:

    30 days to game day. Camp opens in 2 days.

  3. David says:

    “But Tulsa gave away the Armed Forces Bowl against B.Y.U., losing on a late touchdown pass from Riley Nelson to Cody Hoffman – a fake-spike-pass, which made it doubly painful.”

    Gave away the Armed Forces Bowl! Come on Paul. Whenever a team makes a drive at the end of the game, that doesn’t mean the other team (Tulsa in this instance) gave it away. It was a close game and BYU made the plays to win.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    Amazing picture Paul. And a great movie to boot. We need to make a weekly award the Stoltz Award. Most notable feel good story of the week.

  5. OskiGoDumb says:

    Cal at 38?
    One INT: FSU(W), CU(W), Prebyterian(W), OSU(W), Texas(L)
    One TD: OSU(W), Utah(W), WSU(W), ASU(W), UW(L), Oregon(L)

  6. Nathan says:

    The BCS busting Ohio Bobcats next?

  7. David says:

    And 1-0 when throwing exactly 1 TD AND 1 INT: Cal is next.

  8. KDRLAX says:

    Damn you, Myersberg! You just brought JOANNA GOING back into my memory banks – Remember her in that little film (and a sexy school girl outfit(?) ) argh…

  9. WayBack says:

    Tress Way is actually back at Oklahoma for what seems like his 9th year.

  10. Hurricane33 says:

    Zack Langer will be the starter before the third game. He’s a beast, he dominated 6A high school football in OK, and will do the same in D-1. Can’t wait to see him.

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