Tulsa's program appeared to be on the upswing with a 29-11 record from 2010-12 but its disappointing 3-9 season that occurred last season has the program in a tenuous position heading into a new conference.
The Golden Hurricanes are moving from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, a slightly more potent league with Cincinnati, SMU, Central Florida, South Florida, Houston, Temple and UConn, among others.
Bill Blankenship, in his third season, is aiming for the kind of success he enjoyed in his second year at Tulsa (his alma mater) in 2012. The Golden Hurricanes finished 11-3 and won the Liberty Bowl over Iowa State.
To regain another prosperous season, Tulsa must build from an early-season schedule in which it could go 3-1 with wins over Tulsa, Florida Atlantic and Texas State sandwiched around a game at home against Oklahoma.
The biggest concern for Blankenship is his offense, which was was rated 100th in the nation at 356.2 yards per game in 2012. The passing offense mustered only 191.4 yards per game, 99th in the country. The total defense was also lacking allowing 429.6 yards a game, 93rd in the country.
Injuries played a factor. Quarterback Cody Green was never at full strength, the receiver depth chart changed from game to game, and the starting offensive line was altered five times. Only two primary defensive linemen and two linebackers played the entire schedule.
Furthermore, starting safety Demarco Nelson missed the season because of academics. Blankenship never had his intended lineup on the field in 2013.
Green, formerly of Nebraska, has exhausted his eligibility. Sophomore Dane Evans, who started five games in Green's place, is the No. 1 quarterback. Evans is a risky proposition, completing only 43.1 percent of his passes (84 of 195) for 898 with four touchdowns and a scary 10 interceptions last year.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Tulsa has winnable games scheduled at home against Tulane (Aug. 28) and Texas State (Sept. 27). The Golden Hurricanes should also be favored at Florida Atlantic on Sept. 13. The Owls finished 6-6 last year and will be coming off two road games against Nebraska and Alabama. The marquee game is Sept. 6 at home against Oklahoma, which has a seven-game winning streak against the in-state rival. The last time the Sooners lost to Tulsa was in 1996, when the Golden Hurricanes won 31-24 in Norman. The Sooners were an uncharacteristic 0-2 heading into that game under John Blake.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The return of eight starters on defense should help Tulsa improve from a mediocre 2013 in which the Golden Hurricanes finished 93rd in the nation in total defense (429.6 yards per game). Derrick Alexander, a junior defensive end, led the Golden Hurricanes with 6.5 sacks last year and is expected to be one of the best pass rushers in the AAC. Tulsa should improve on their 95th nationally-ranked rush defense and remain one of the better pass rushing teams in the country (2.58 sacks per game). The secondary was not totally porous last season, ranking 65th in the nation. With everybody back, led by safety Michael Mudoh, with an impressive team leading 133 tackles, the unit should be much improved.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Losing linebacker Shawn Jackson, the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and Tulsa's career sacks leader, hurts the defense. He recorded 5.5 sacks, 18.5 tackles for lost yardage and 124 total tackles as a senior. He also accounted for eight turnovers, recovering three fumbles and picking off five passes. Trey Watts and his 1,329 yards and 11 touchdowns was one of the few bright spots for Tulsa in 2013 and replacing him will not be that simple. Sophomore quarterback Dane Evans started five games last year in which he completed only 43.1 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns against ten interception. At least a veteran offensive line, which allowed only ten sacks in 2013, and the talent at receiver should help Evans or whoever earns the starting role as the season unfolds.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's working every day. He's listening, he's being coachable, and he has really improved his fundamentals, which is very important in the heat of the battle. I've been very pleased with his poise and his ability to put a little touch on the ball, which is something he hadn't done in the past." -- Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship commenting on the performance of sophomore quarterback Dane Evans in fall camp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Bill Blankenship, third year at Tulsa, 22-17 record at Tulsa and as a head coach.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
FS Demarco Nelson (No. 36 free safety, 813th overall) -- His unexpected academic ineligibility devastated Tulsa's defense just before the season opener. Nelson sat out the season and has his grades are where they're supposed to be (he's on track to graduate in December). The 6-foot, 195-pound Nelson is a three-year senior starter with 239 career tackles and 13 career interceptions. Nelson is known for his range, aggressive and physical style and cover skills.
WR Keyarris Garrett (No. 54 wide receiver, 455th overall) -- Before breaking his leg early last season, the 6-4, 221-pound Garrett was the Golden Hurricanes' best deep threat and most consistent target. He caught 67 passes for 845 yards and nine touchdowns. He should be completely healthy from a compound leg fracture suffered in a Week 2 victory over Colorado State. His return gives Tulsa a legitimate deep threat and breakaway playmaker who forces defenses to stretch their coverage and loosen up at the line of scrimmage.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Dane Evans -- Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship has raved about Evans' development during fall camp but just how effective Evans can be is the biggest question mark heading into the season. Evans is a risk after throwing 10 interceptions with only four touchdowns in five starts as a freshman last year. Without a proven quarterback in the lineup, Evans is Blankenship's best option. Blankenship has reasoned that Evans' struggles occurred because he was an untested freshman thrown into the starting role with starter Cody Green out with an injury. How Evans performs through September should set the tone for the rest of the season.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Keevan Lucas -- He is Tulsa's returning receiving leader in yards (442) from last year and was used at times running the ball on end-arounds as a true freshman. He has good quickness and presents a reliable target. He played in all 12 games and started five times. He had three games with 80-plus yards receiving, including his season best of 87 yards on five catches against UTSA .
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LB Conner Sherwood -- A sophomore, he is listed high on the depth chart, ready to take on more importance with the graduation of Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Shawn Jackson. Sherwood possesses good size (6-3, 232) and plays the run well. He played in four games last year, mostly on special teams.
--Starting WR Keyarris Garrett, who missed all but two games last year with a broken leg, has missed some fall camp sessions with a muscle strain in his leg. He is expected to be ready to play in the season opener Aug. 28 against Tulane.
--Reserve HB Pat Swilling Jr. has one year of eligibility on the football team after completing his basketball career with Tulsa. He has not been cleared academically, however, because he did not finish the spring semester while being investigated for sexual assault.
--DL Dalton Rodriguez, who played in nine games last year with Tulsa as a true freshman, has announced he will transfer to Oklahoma (of which he first committed to before signing with Tulsa out of high school).
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