Tulsa had aspirations of earning a BCS berth, but those dreams were dashed with its first loss of the season its last time out.
A defeat this week could be nearly as demoralizing, as it might leave the Golden Hurricane out of the Conference USA championship game.
Tulsa looks to bounce back and stay in control of its own fate in the West Division on Saturday when it visits third-place Houston.
The No. 25 Golden Hurricane (8-1, 5-0) had an outside chance at a BCS bowl berth after climbing to No. 18 in the BCS standings, but those hopes ended with a 30-23 defeat to Arkansas on Nov. 1.
“Obviously our BCS dreams are wounded, but we still want to finish up conference undefeated and win the Liberty Bowl,” defensive lineman Wilson Garrison said. “This is just a bump in the road.”
Another bump in the road this week could leave Tulsa out of that bowl as well.
The Golden Hurricane have a half-game lead in the West Division over Rice, which they beat Oct. 4, and are one game ahead of Houston (5-4, 4-1). The winner of this game will have the inside track at clinching the West with two games remaining.
Since the conference split into two divisions in 2005, Tulsa has won the West in ’05 and ’07, with Houston taking it in ’06.
“This is a big game,” Golden Hurricane coach Todd Graham said. “This game will be a determining factor in who represents the West. Naturally, it’s a game that we have to be successful in.”
Tulsa will be looking to get its high-powered offense rolling again. The Golden Hurricane lead the Football Bowl Subdivision with 52.0 points and 593.0 yards per game, but they had trouble getting the ball into the end zone against the Razorbacks.
Tulsa, which scored at least 37 points in each of its first eight games, amassed 528 yards, but managed only three points in the second half and none in the fourth quarter - its first scoreless period of the season.
Tulsa drove to the Arkansas 4-yard line in the final minute, but running back A.J. Whitmore was dropped for a loss and David Johnson threw incomplete on fourth down.
Johnson finished 17-of-31 for 322 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and has just two TD passes in his last two games after throwing 31 in his first seven.
The Golden Hurricane defeated Houston 56-7 last Nov. 10, but the Cougars seem likely to put up more points in this meeting. Houston is fourth in the FBS in total offense with 547.3 yards per game and has scored at least 41 points in four of its last five games.
The Cougars gained a season-high 693 yards of offense in last Saturday’s 42-14 win over Tulane, but turned the ball over three times and committed 12 penalties for 143 yards.
“We can get better,” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. “We turned it over and had a bunch of penalties. We are nine games into this offense and as our guys get to learn and Case (Keenum) learns what we can and can’t do, and we get a feel for things, we can get better. We have to play at a level at that same aggressive level without the mistakes.”
Keenum completed 29 of 40 passes for 384 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, extending a school record with his 10th straight game of at least 300 yards passing.
Bryce Beall rushed for 176 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 carries and also caught a TD pass. Beall has rushed for 586 yards on 90 attempts in his last five games, and has a Houston freshman-record 10 rushing touchdowns on the season.
Houston’s 41-24 win over then-No. 23 East Carolina on Sept. 27 snapped an 18-game losing streak against ranked opponents, dating to 1996.