October 30, 2008
Saturdays' game at Arkansas is the biggest of Tulsa's season for a lot of tangible reasons, not least of which is preserving the Hurricane's perfect season and giving it an SEC hide to present to the impressionable gatekeepers of the BCS. But the personal stuff, of course, is vastly more interesting, and whatever he says about it, it doesn't get much more personal than offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's return trip to Fayetteville.
Malzahn, you might recall, is the ex-Razorback and Arkansas high school coaching legend who literally wrote the book on relentlessly up-tempo, prolific spread offense. He followed golden child quarterback Mitch Mustain to a plum coordinator job on Houston Nutt's staff in 2006, where Malzahn's dizzying passing philosophy was promptly shelved in favor of a showcasing the barely human talents of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. The chaotic, endlessly entertaining rift that formed as the Hogs forsook the promise of the spread was at the core of the reaction that led to Nutt's eventual ouster -- parents of Malzahn's Springdale High clan chided the boss for leaning on the run, protegés Mustain and Damien Williams bailed on their backyard for USC, and Malzahn wound up taking his mad scientist routine across the state line, where defensive-minded Tulsa boss Todd Graham would never ask him to take his foot off the gas.
Aside from Oklahoma last September, no defense has slowed Tulsa's point-a-minute assault since: TU hasn't been held under 37 points this year and leads the nation in total yards for the second year in a row. It's exactly what Malzahn delivered in the high school ranks, and (in Conference USA, anyway) everything the pro-Gus faction of Hog Heads dreamed it could be, and more:
Score 49 points in a half!
Rain touchdown after touchdown on some of the worst defenses in America!
True, Tulsa's schedule is a sick joke, one of the weakest ever conceived, as you probably guessed by the fact that very meh Arkansas is by far the highlight of the season. Only one of the Hurricanes' first eight victims, Rice, is currently over .500, and the Owls are one of five defenses Tulsa has faced ranked 100th or worse in total and scoring defense, not including Central Arkansas, which is "reclassifying" this year into the FCS/I-AA and doesn't even have official stats as far as the NCAA is concerned.
Given the ignominy of a slate like that, at least the Hurricane are dominating their rock-bottom opposition by the wide, wide margins you'd expect, even compared to other offenses that spend their time exploiting the weak and stupid:
Tulsa offense vs. opponents' defensive averages
Those percentages are a little low, actually, because the averages they're competing against include the damage done by Tulsa. If they hold up, based on Arkansas' averages to date, Malzahn and Co. will put up around 500 yards and 54 points Saturday, and that's exactly what the Hurricane need. If Tulsa has any chance whatsoever to worm its way into the BCS consciousness, it needs the same kind of effort against one of the weaker outfits the SEC has to offer, not just to beat the Hogs, but convincingly hang their usual glut on the board, the same way Texas (52 points), Alabama (49) and Florida (38) did in the three-week span that confirmed the Razorbacks' hopelessness against the kind of competition Tulsa would like to join. Even Auburn scored 22 against Arkansas a few days after the Tigers canned their ineffectual offensive coordinator. If Tulsa can't do substantially better than that against the country's 102nd-ranked scoring defense, forever a niche freak show the Hurricane will remain.