The University of Tulsa has a football program that’s spent much of its history ‘punching above its weight’.
Despite being in the 2nd most populous city in Oklahoma, TU has always been among the smallest colleges in Division 1, with a current enrollment fluctuating around 3,000 undergraduates.
Yet since 1962 the Golden Hurricane have shared or won outright 15 conference championships. If you want to focus on more recent history, since 2007 they have 5 different 10+ win seasons and in 2 of those seasons they finished the year in the AP or Coaches Top 25.
Several different coaches this millennium have achieved a reasonably high level of success at TU. That hasn’t been the challenge. The challenge is sustaining any kind of consistent success after those big seasons.
The only coach who achieved something approaching consistency during this recent stretch was Todd Graham. Under Graham, TU won 10+ games 3 times between 2007-10 and Graham jumped to the first bigger conference school that would stomach having him as coach: Pitt.
Current TU head coach Phillip Montgomery was looking like an inspired hire after a 2016 season where the Golden Hurricane went 10-3 and were heartbreakingly close to winning the AAC West.
However, since 2017 TU has won a total of 5 games and a program that seemed unlucky not to have at least a division title has fallen off a cliff.
As college football fans we treat the head coach getting fired in this case as almost a foregone conclusion. But a larger budget crisis at TU has changed the dynamic.
The situation is bad enough that Montgomery took a voluntary pay cut before last season along with the school’s Athletic Director Derrick Gragg and men’s basketball coach Frank Haith. Firing a coach and their staff and hiring a new one is an expensive process and one you can’t blame this university for being reluctant to pursue.
So, for better or worse Montgomery and Golden Hurricane fans are stuck with each other. If there’s some good news in all of this, it does seem like the Golden Hurricane program is gradually trending in the right direction.
The Golden Hurricane Offense:
Maybe the most surprising thing about the last 2 years of Tulsa football was how much they’ve struggled offensively for long stretches of this period.
The 2017 Tulsa offense was good at running the ball and laughably bad at throwing it and last year’s group wasn’t very good at either, while being one of the country’s least explosive offenses.
That inconsistency or downright incompetence on offense explains in some part why the Golden Hurricane were 1-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less in the last 2 years. That kind of futility is equal parts remarkable and frustrating.
But the main reason this offensive collapse was so surprising is Montgomery comes from the Art Briles coaching tree. He served as an assistant under Briles at Stephenville High School, Houston and Baylor. Montgomery even was the offensive play caller from 2012-14 at BU, something Briles was historically reluctant to let his assistants do.
Excluding a year where he was the OC at Denton Ryan High School in 2002, Montgomery coached under Briles from 1997 through the 2014 season. Maybe unsurprisingly given who his coaching mentor is, Montgomery is his own OC and play caller at TU.
There may be a few familiar names to Cougar fans from those Briles era teams on the TU coaching staff, highlighted by Cougar O Line alum Mike Bloesch who has coached the Golden Hurricane O Line since 2016.
Tulsa has averaged well under 200 passing yards per game in each of the last 2 seasons and the biggest cause of that has been instability at QB. Chad President, a 4-star dual threat with offers from every Big 12 school in Texas, seemed like the heir apparent in 2017. But President could never stay healthy or pass the ball at the college level and retired from the sport after multiple serious leg injuries.
In President’s absence Luke Skipper showed signs of promise in 2017 and started the first 4 games of 2018 before a back injury ended his sophomore season. Sophomore Seth Boomer was thrown to the wolves (or specifically, Ed Oliver) in his first college action against Houston.
Boomer often looked like a redshirt freshman without much of a supporting cast, but avoided interceptions (4 INTs in 198 attempts) and got noticeably better late in the season.
Boomer completed 75% of his passes (21-28) and passed for a season-high 271 yards against SMU in a 27-24 season finale upset win. His main competition is junior Zach Smith who started parts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons for Baylor and sat out last year. Like Boomer, Smith is far from a proven commodity but was recruited to Baylor to run the same offense Montgomery runs at TU. Skipper, also a junior, was notably absent from spring practice.
Last year’s rushing offense was easily the worst under Montgomery. There’s good news though, as both of last year’s top running backs were sophomores and are back for 2019.
Shamari Brooks saw his per carry numbers decline sharply (5.8 yds/carry in ’17 down to 4.2 in ’18) as he was asked to take more of the workload. Brooks led the Golden Hurricane with 967 rush yards and was 2nd on the team with 7 rush TDs.
After missing most of 2017 injured Corey Taylor II had a breakout sophomore season last year. Taylor led the team with 11 rushing TDs and finished just behind Brooks with 846 rush yards. In his one start of the year (against Houston) Taylor rushed for 152 yards on 33 carries.
Both Brooks and Taylor, even if the run game improves are more in the mold of between-the-tackles ‘bruiser’ backs rather than explosive playmakers. He only played in 3 games at the end of the year, but redshirt freshman T.K. Wilkerson broke off a 79-yard run vs UConn that was TU’s longest run play of 2018.
Regardless of who ends up starting at QB, the passing game will get a boost from a receiver group that returns everybody except for last year’s #2 receiver Justin Hobbs.
Junior inside receiver Keylon Stokes led the Golden Hurricane in receptions (41), receiving yards (575) and had the team’s longest reception last year.
The most experienced guy to replace Hobbs on the outside this year will be senior Keenen Johnson who nearly equaled Hobbs’ production last year and had better peripherals.
Like a lot of teams in the AAC, offensive line is a big question mark. The 2018 group was very experienced but allowed an absurd number of sacks (39) considering how run-first the TU offense generally was. You can’t blame that all on the O Line as they were blocking for two underclassmen QBs who took way more sacks than they should have.
Either way the offensive line returns a total of 27 career starts between all players after being one of the most experienced units on the team last year.
Senior LT Chris Ivy Jr is the only every game starter that’s back, which I guess is good news considering the unique challenge of protecting the blind side. Sophomore Chris Paul started 8 games at right guard last year and played in all 12, while junior LG Tiller Bucktrot and junior C Dylan Couch also got 4 and 3 starts respectively.
Some instability up front last year at least gave the coaching staff a chance to give several underclassmen experience. But this is still a big question mark in an area where you don’t want to have one.
I don’t believe this year’s Golden Hurricane offense will be at the level of Montgomery’s 2015-16 offenses, which were both top 25 in a lot of the standard and advanced statistics. But I think this will be a more prolific and balanced attack than this team's last 2 offenses.
The Golden Hurricane Defense:
It takes a lot of different things going wrong to have the kind of collapse TU football had after their successful 2016 season. As much as offensive deficiencies played their part, the defense was among the worst in the country in 2017 and needed to improve by a healthy amount just to be ‘below average’ last year.
The improvement last year can be credited in some part to being absurdly young 2 years ago and a formation change from the 4-2-5 to the 3-3-5 stack. Last year’s DC, the veteran Bill Young, finally retired and Montgomery elected to promote linebackers coach Joseph Gillespie to the DC position.
Gillespie, unsurprisingly, has extensive connections to Stephenville High School where he was head coach from 2008-14 and an assistant for many years before that. I am kind of skeptical about promoting from within here, but Gillespie was a big part of a significant improvement on this defense last year.
The general profile of this defense was excellent against the pass and not very good against the run. One area they really struggled in was creating pressure and in 12 games the TU defense only had 14 sacks and 59 tackles for a loss. They also allowed opponents to rush for 200+ yards per game, on average.
They return nearly everyone in the defensive front, which is not entirely good or bad news, considering last year’s struggles.
Nobody looks the part more on this defense than 343-pound junior nose guard Tyarise Stevenson who made 11 starts and had 25 total tackles and 4 TFLs last year. Senior defensive tackle Shemarr Robinson also started 3 games and had 31 total tackles on the interior.
Senior Trevis Gipson was 2nd in the nation with his 5 forced fumbles and had 46 total tackles from the defensive end position to lead all Golden Hurricane linemen. Gipson was the only consistent havoc creator on this defense last year. Junior Cullen Wick played in all 12 games as a backup DE last year and finished on a high note with 2 sacks in the season finale win over SMU.
Most critically, the top 2 tacklers from last year’s team are back. Senior Cooper Edmiston started all 12 games at the ‘Mike’ (middle) linebacker position and led the team in total tackles (113), solo tackles (47) and interceptions (4). A lot of the positivity I have about the TU defense is simply based on returning Edmiston.
The rising star of this linebacker group is Zaven Collins, who started 10 games at the ‘Will’ (weakside) linebacker spot and led the team with 9.5 TFLs. Collins was also 2nd in both total and solo tackles and was named to multiple outlets’ freshman All-American team. Rounding out the group is senior ‘Sam’ (strongside) linebacker Diamon Cannon, who started 9 games and finished last year with 52 total tackles.
Maybe the only notable loss from this defense was McKinley Whitfield, a multi-year starter at safety who graduated after last year. But everyone else from a good secondary is back. Last year’s pass defense allowed opponents only 174 pass yards per game and a total of 11 passing TDs in 12 games.
Senior free safety Manny Bunch led all Golden Hurricane defensive backs in tackles last year and tied for the team-lead in pass breakups. The best candidates to replace Whitfield are sophomore Bryson Powers (7 starts, 63 total tackles, 4 pass breakups) and senior TieNeal Martin (4 starts, 28 total tackles), who both started games at Nickel back last year.
They also return 2 cornerbacks with extensive starting experience from last year: junior Akayleb Evans and junior Albie Green IV. I was impressed at the length TU has here, as both Evans and Green are listed at least 6’2”.
I don’t know if this defense is good enough to overcome injuries to key players or the offense getting much worse, but I think they’ll have a top half of the league defense for the first time in 3 years. If this team can get to 6 wins it’ll because of defensive improvements.
The Golden Hurricane Special Teams:
The Golden Hurricane place kicking was bad enough it largely cost the team a seismic upset win over the Texas Longhorns last September. In a 28-21 loss in Austin, TU kickers missed 3 field goals (a 4th miss was blown dead by a penalty, too).
For the season, TU kickers were 12 for 21 on field goal attempts and an even more abysmal 1 of 6 outside of 40 yards. Junior John Parker Romo is the only returning kicker with game experience. I expect Drake grad transfer and Tulsa native Danny Donley to win the job as he went 23-28 on field goals in the 2017-18 seasons.
If not for Cincy having a Ray Guy award finalist Tulsa would’ve had the best punter in the league: senior Thomas Bennett. Last year Bennett averaged 46.6 yards per punt (5th in Division 1 FBS) and had 4 60+ yard punts while being named 2nd team All-AAC.
They lose their best punt returner (Jarion Anderson) but have back kick return average leader Keylon Stokes.
The Season Outlook:
I know I’ve said it already, but Tulsa has been phenomenally unlucky in close games recently. I am a firm believer you are what your record is at the end of a season. But its notable how statistically unlikely it is to lose 90% of your 1 possession games like the Golden Hurricane have done the last 2 seasons.
The non-conference schedule has 2 tough games (Michigan State, Oklahoma State) but MSU will provide a payday for a cash strapped athletics department and I’m sure the OSU game will bring a good crowd. The rest of the non-conference schedule is going to a bad San Jose State team and hosting Wyoming.
That last game against Wyoming won’t be a ‘gimme’ but Tulsa coming out of non-conference play 2-2 is not unrealistic.
What keeps me from being more optimistic about the Golden Hurricane going back to a bowl is an unforgiving conference schedule. From late October through late November the Golden Hurricane have Memphis, UCF and Houston at home and a roadie to Tulane. I am not sure I see Tulsa winning more than 1 of those games.
They also have roadies to Cincy and SMU that will be tough to win. Even the season finale at ECU feels tough. There’s a decent chance the Pirates (with an easy schedule) will be playing that game for bowl eligibility in front of a rabid crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
So, I would be mildly surprised if this Tulsa team got to 6 wins with this schedule, but I think they’ll be a tricky team and one set up well for 2020.
Matching Up with Houston:
To put it mildly, H.A. Chapman Stadium has been the sight of some unbelievable highs and incredible lows for Cougar fans.
I guess let’s do the positives first. In early November of 2009, the Cougars looked finished after failing to convert a 2-point conversion and trailing Tulsa 45-43 with 21 seconds left. The Cougars improbably recovered an onside kick and set up Matt Hogan for a career long 51-yard field goal make to steal the game 46-45 in Tulsa.
With decidedly less drama, UH ended the 2011 regular season with a 48-16 win and unfortunately no record exists of what happened to that team after they finished the regular season 12-0.
Now for the less happy stuff. In a game that essentially decided the CUSA West division, then UH coach Art Briles and his 2007 team seemingly didn’t make the trip up to Tulsa. To say the Golden Hurricane pounded the Coogs might be too charitable. This was my first UH football road trip and it’s a miracle I ever went on another after watching the Coogs lose 56-7.
Nearly 10 years later to the month I met up with my good friend Bobby in Dallas and drove up to watch what I thought would be UH comfortably beating one of the worst Tulsa teams ever.
Instead, we were treated to Kyle Postma attempting 41 passes on a windy day and UH giving up 38 2nd half points and getting trounced 45-17 for Tulsa’s lone win of 2017 over an FBS opponent.
These experiences have humbled me enough that I don’t take this year’s game in Tulsa for granted. I believe UH will ultimately win more games and by most quantifiable metrics be the better of these two teams next year. But that doesn’t mean Tulsa can’t beat UH.
The saving grace for UH here is even if they’re improved, I believe Tulsa will be one of the worst offenses the Coogs face in 2019. At the same time, I’m pretty sold on the Golden Hurricane defense being a solid group. Unlike 2 years ago, it’ll be ‘strength vs strength’ when the UH offense and Tulsa defense are on the field.
I expect UH will be the odds-on favorite to win this game and that still won’t prevent me from stressing about it in 4 months’ time.