Saturday, January 18, 2014

Even the Losers: Tulsa

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. Our second team we evaluate will be the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

2013 Record: 3-9 (2-6 Conference USA)

Summary: Coming off a Conference USA title and a school record eleven wins, Tulsa was the preseason favorite in the western division of Conference USA. The Golden Hurricane opened with a blowout loss at eventual MAC-champ Bowling Green. They rebounded the following weekend and gave what was in hindsight, likely their best performance of the year in a 30-27 win over eventual bowl winner Colorado State. After an expected loss at Oklahoma, Tulsa lost at home by 17 points to an Iowa State team that finished just 3-9. Beginning conference play with all their goals still firmly in front of them, Tulsa lost a close home game to Rice before beating UTEP to move to 1-1 in league play. Tulsa would win just a single game the rest of the way, with only one of their defeats coming by fewer than eleven points. Their three wins marked the fewest for the program since they finished 1-11 in 2002.

What Did the Golden Hurricane Do Well?
Tulsa did not do a whole lot well in 2013, but we'll go with 'win on the road'. At least as compared to how they performed at home. Since joining Conference USA in 2005, through the 2012 season, Tulsa was a sterling 26-6 versus conference foes at home. Only three of their six losses came by double digits. In 2013, they finished 0-4 at home against conference foes, and three of their four losses came by double digits. Tulsa did win half of their road games however, beating both UTEP and Louisiana Tech away from the friendly confines. Still, compared to their 21-11 conference road record from 2005-2012, this was a far cry from their usual performance.

What Didn't the Golden Hurricane Do Well?
As mentioned earlier, the Golden Hurricane didn't do a lot well, but we'll give the nod to the defense, which imploded late in the season. The Golden Hurricane allowed 30 points or more eight times in 2013, including four times in their final five games. Teams particularly enjoyed gashing the Golden Hurricane on the ground where opponents averaged 200 yards per game (97th nationally) and 4.62 yards per rush (88th nationally). That marked the first time Tulsa allowed more than four yards per rush since 2007.

The Golden Hurricane Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Tulsa's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Tulsa played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Golden Hurricane averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Golden Hurricane allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
Among mid-major programs Tulsa has probably done the most with the least over the past four seasons. From 2010 through 2012, the Golden Hurricane went 20-4 in Conference USA, 29-11 overall, and won the league title in 2012. The Golden Hurricane accomplished all this with only one player from those three teams being drafted. For the curious, it was tight end Charles Clay who was picked in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. The nomad Todd Graham coached the Hurricanes in 2010 before giving way to former high school coach Bill Blankenship in 2011. Graham's 2010 team won games with a powerful offense led by quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne returned for his senior campaign in 2011, and with an improved defense, the Golden Hurricane entered the final week of the regular season unbeaten in league play. If not for an unusually strong Conference USA (Southern Miss and Houston finished the 2011 season in the top 20 of the AP Poll), Tulsa may well have won two league titles in a row. Sans Kinne in 2012, the offense shifted even more to a run-based attack behind Trey Watts (son of Oklahoma legend J.C. Watts), Ja'Terian Douglas, and Alex Singleton who combined to rush for 34 touchdowns in their championship year. Nebraska transfer Cody Green was limited as a passer, especially compared to Kinne, but he did account for 21 total touchdowns himself. With Watts, Douglas, and Green returning in 2013, the offense seemed destined to stay near the top of Conference USA. However, the loss of three starters on the line limited the running game and Green regressed as passer. When Green was injured midway through the season, redshirt freshman Dane Evans replaced him and proceeded to complete just 43% of his passes while throwing ten interceptions and averaging under five yards per pass attempt. As the offense struggled, the defense also faltered. While the Golden Hurricane did not lose any NFL caliber talent from the 2012 team, they did lose eight starters from the best defensive unit in Conference USA, including their four leading sack generators (30 and half combined from the four in question in 2012) from a defense that netted 51 total sacks. The net result was a lost season for Tulsa and a question as to whether 2013 was a one-year blip on the radar (like 2009 was for Graham) or a sign of things to come.

The 2014 Schedule:
Tulsa moves to the American Athletic Conference in 2014, which represents a slight step up in competition from Conference USA, but will never be confused with the SEC West. Their league schedule has not yet been formulated, but we do know the four teams they will face outside the conference. The Golden Hurricane travel to Colorado State and Florida Atlantic. The Rams from Colorado State appear to be on the upswing, and they nearly beat Tulsa last season, so a road win in Fort Collins seems unlikely. Florida Atlantic was a solid 6-6 last season despite losing their coach to a drug scandal. The Owls were much better than their record, losing three conference games by a touchdown or less, and will represent a real challenge for Tulsa particularly at home. In other non-conference action, Tulsa hosts in-state foe Oklahoma and IA neophyte Texas State. Facing Oklahoma, even at home is a longshot. Texas State went 6-6 last season, but was not as good as their record and Tulsa should be expected to win at home. Realistically, a split in non-conference play is probably the best Tulsa can hope for in 2014, with a 1-3 mark a distinct possibility.

Reasons for Optimism:
A recent track record and youth. Prior to their disappointing 2013 campaign, Tulsa went to bowl games in seven of eight seasons from 2005 through 2012. That's one of the best runs for any mid-major over that span. Secondly, while the Golden Hurricane were not particularly good on defense in 2013, they were pretty young. Of their top ten tacklers, only three were seniors and four were either freshmen or sophomores. Even incremental improvement could move the Golden Hurricane to the middle of the pack in their new conference.

Final Prognosis:
2014 will serve as a referendum for the Bill Blankenship era at Tulsa. If the Golden Hurricane endure another losing season, he will likely be coaching for his job in 2015. However, if he returns the Golden Hurricane to the postseason, 2013 will likely be seen as an aberration. Keep in mind that while Tulsa has been a strong mid-major for a decade, winning at one of the smallest IA schools is no easy task. The Golden Hurricane endured eleven consecutive losing seasons before Steve Kragthorpe revitalized the program in 2003. Here's another facet to consider. From 2005 through 2012, 20 mid-major teams saw their conference record drop by at least four games from one season to the next (remember Tulsa finished five games worse in league play in 2013 than they did in 2012). Of those 20 teams, 16 improved their league record by at least one game the following season. Ten saw their league record improve by at least two games, and no team saw their conference record get worse. On average, the teams improved by 1.95 games in the conference standings the next season with the biggest improvements coming from Memphis in 2007 and Middle Tennessee State in 2012 (five games). Improvement by Tulsa is a given in 2014, but will they improve enough to get to a bowl game? Based on their non-conference slate, the Golden Hurricane need to finish at least 4-4 or possibly 5-3 in the American to be bowl eligible. I think they will finish on the cusp of postseason play with either five, six, seven regular season wins.

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