The Year in Review: Tulsa (8-5, 7-1)
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 3, 2012
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. These facts say much about Tulsa, its 2011 season and Conference USA at large.
The win total, eight, was Tulsa’s fewest in a winning season since Steve Kragthorpe’s final season in 2006. Under Todd Graham, the Golden Hurricane notched three double-digit win seasons in four years, marred only by a disappointing fall back to 5-7 in 2009. That was followed by a 10-3 season in 2010, which Graham parlayed into the Pittsburgh job – which he then parlayed into the Arizona State job, if we’re keeping track.
The offense wasn’t quite as explosive; Tulsa scored 430 points, 100 less than in 2010 and 231 points less than the program’s high-water mark set in 2008, Graham’s second season. And the defense, while improved, remained roughly on the same level as each of Graham’s last three teams. In this case, however, the year-end numbers don’t tell the whole story.
When it comes to those three totals – wins, points scored, points allowed – Tulsa was impacted greatly by its beefed-up non-conference schedule. Merely in September, the Golden Hurricane hosted the Cowboys and faced the Sooners and Broncos on the road; non-conference play came to a close with a home date against North Texas to open October.
Compare that schedule with the teams Todd Graham faced in non-conference play over his four seasons with the program. In 2010, Tulsa took on Bowling Green, Oklahoma State, Central Arkansas and Notre Dame. In 2009, it was New Mexico, Oklahoma, Sam Houston State and Boise State. In 2008? North Texas, New Mexico, Central Arkansas and Arkansas. In 2007, his first season, Graham took on Louisiana-Monroe, B.Y.U., Oklahoma and Army.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Tulsa won 10, 11 and 10 games, respectively, in Graham’s three marquee campaigns. Perhaps it’s also no surprise – though it’s not the only factor – that the Golden Hurricane’s lone losing season under Graham came in 2009, when they played two marquee non-conference opponents in Oklahoma and Boise State.
That the Golden Hurricane were able to weather the non-conference schedule last fall, winning eight games and nearly taking the Conference USA West, says much about first-year coach Bill Blankenship and the league as a whole. Blankenship, a sort of Oklahoma institution on the high school ranks, landed the job as Graham’s replacement ahead of a handful of more marquee names, including former Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
Based on 2011, Tulsa hasn’t missed the mark in a hire since bringing in Keith Burns in 2000. That didn’t work out well, but Kragthorpe, Graham and Blankenship have done a great job keeping the Golden Hurricane among the Conference USA elite – though Blankenship’s sample size is small, to be fair. Blankenship will have to continue to prove himself in 2012 and beyond, when Tulsa will have to win with his recruits, not Graham’s.
Another factor behind Tulsa’s ability to win eight games despite its September schedule was a down Conference USA, which was very strong along the upper crust but rapidly deteriorated along its second tier. There was Houston, Southern Mississippi and Tulsa leading the way; S.M.U. should be included, though the Mustangs were a disappointment.
From there, only Marshall, at 7-6, was able to post a winning record. The remainder of Conference USA was an abomination: East Carolina and U.C.F. were average, the rest only a hair’s breadth away from terrible. Memphis was terrible, in fact, as was Tulane. In part, it was a weak Conference USA that allowed Tulsa to mount a comeback on the heels of its rocky September.
The question: Was Tulsa that good, or was Conference USA that bad? There’s little doubt that a down conference played a substantial role in Tulsa’s ability to win eight games in the regular season, but that stance ignores how well the Golden Hurricane fared in October and November. Even in a strong year for Conference USA, Tulsa would have been right in the title mix. Even in Conference USA’s best year, Tulsa’s still getting back into bowl play.
Season grade: A- 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 higher grade, 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 a bowl team 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 – the fake-spike-pass, as discussed yesterday.
Offensive M.V.P. Quarterback G.J. Kinne did not have quite as strong a season as he had in 2010, but part of his decline is due to a poor start. He missed most of the loss to Oklahoma State, making only five attempts, and had a career-high four interceptions in the loss at Boise State. Like the team as a whole, Kinne’s game hit its stride over Tulsa’s two-month winning streak in Conference USA play. Over his team’s seven-game winning streak, Kinne tossed 18 touchdowns against 4 picks. A three-year starter under Graham and Blankenship, Kinne’s experience and production will be extremely difficult for Tulsa to replace. Think the former Texas transfer wouldn’t have started for the Longhorns over the last two years?
Defensive M.V.P. Linebacker Curnelius Arnick was a tackling machine: 159 overall, the most in Conference USA and second-most nationally, behind only Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. He had at least seven stops in every game, double-digit tackles in eight games and at least 17 tackles in four games, including 18 apiece in losses to Oklahoma and Boise. Arnick, who played outside over his first three years, took his game to another level when moved into the middle. Tulsa’s saving grace, looking ahead to 2012, is that most of the two-deep at linebacker was populated by underclassmen. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting Arnick’s ability to help pick up an underwhelming defensive front.
Stock watch The non-conference schedule will ease in 2012, though not overly so: Tulsa will still play Iowa State, Nicholls State, Fresno State and Arkansas. Easier, but not easy. Of bigger concern are the holes on offense that need to be filled, such as at quarterback, where Kinne leaves enormous shoes to fill, as well as along the line, where three starters must be replaced. The Golden Hurricane will have a hard time matching last year’s totals unless a quarterback like Kalen Henderson, who struggled mightily against Oklahoma State, is ready to take control of the offense. Can the defense help pick up the slack? History isn’t on Tulsa’s side, but returning starters are: the Golden Hurricane will bring back seven starters, including most of the secondary. It’ll likely take a stronger defensive product for Tulsa to remain a factor in the Conference USA title hunt.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Bill Blankenship, Conference USA, Curnelius Arnick, G.J. Kinne, Kalen Henderson, Todd Graham, Tulsa
Leave a Comment