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Local Legends And The Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you hate numbers, just skip to the words.

A while back, the always enjoyable Cowboys Ride For Free posted a helpful flow chart showing Oklahomans the school they should be adopting. The general gist: if you enjoy partying in Stillwater or are an Oklahoma State grad, adopt OSU. If you are a Tulsa grad or a Tulsa native over 50, choose Tulsa. Otherwise, you're probably choosing Oklahoma. From my 17 or so years in Oklahoma, I can say that this seems rather accurate. Why? Because I never actually met a Tulsa fan. I grew up two and a half hours from the greater Tulsa metro area, and I didn't grow up knowing too many 50+ year olds; everybody I knew was either an OU fan, an OSU fan or ... an OU fan. Tulsa almost seemed to have the same sort of minor league affiliation with OU and OSU as MAC schools have with Ohio State.

Though I grew up relatively close to TU, they always seemed like a novelty; it felt like they were capable of huge seasons, but they rarely actually produced. With John Cooper in charge, they went 10-1 in 1982, beating Air Force and Oklahoma State by double digits but missing out on a bowl. With Dave Rader, they upset a 10-win Texas A&M squad on their way to 10-2 and a Freedom Bowl win over San Diego State and their precocious freshmen, Marshall Faulk and Darnay Scott. But from 1992 to 2002, Tulsa averaged just three wins per season.

Since the beginning of the Steve Kragthorpe era in 2003, however, things have turned around. Tulsa has been one of the most consistently solid mid-major programs this side of Hattiesburg, winning at least eight games (and making a bowl) in six of eight seasons, winning at least ten in three of the last four, and qualifying for three conference title games in six years. They've also won four bowl games in six years, matching the total they had amassed in their first 70+ years of existence at the Division I level. With the talent at play in the Tulsa area -- not every Tulsa Union and Jenks player is going to end up at a BCS school ... it only seems like it -- there is no reason that TU can't field at least a decent team every year, and in the past decade it has begun to realize its potential.

With head coach Todd Graham getting hired away by Pittsburgh this past offseason, TU now turns to local legend Bill Blankenship, the architect of Union's recent dominance; he lost 26 games in 14 seasons as Union head coach, and after a few years of serving as a Tulsa assistant (and a few years of healing from past injustices), he gets a chance to keep the good times rolling at his alma mater.


And yes, it's Golden Hurricane, not Golden Hurricanes.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 60
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
5-Sep at East Carolina 49-51 L 27.5 - 33.2 L
11-Sep Bowling Green 33-20 W 25.5 - 33.1 L
18-Sep at Oklahoma State 28-65 L 29.6 - 37.3 L
25-Sep Central Arkansas
41-14 W 27.0 - 39.9 L
2-Oct at Memphis 48-7 W 25.5 - 27.0 L
9-Oct at SMU 18-21 L 23.7 - 31.1 L
16-Oct Tulane 52-24 W 44.8 - 32.9 W
30-Oct at Notre Dame 28-27 W 25.6 - 28.7 L
6-Nov Rice 64-27 W 34.0 - 36.5 L
13-Nov at Houston 28-25 W 29.0 - 17.3 W
20-Nov UTEP 31-28 W 34.1 - 26.9 W
27-Nov Southern Miss 56-50 W 47.5 - 28.7 W
24-Dec vs Hawaii 62-35 W 38.0 - 23.6 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 41.4 6 30.3 85
Adj. Points Per Game 31.7 30 30.5 85

Tulsa's 2010 season shows, to some degree, the benefits of both per-play (or per-drive) measures and opponent adjustments. Tulsa ranked sixth in the country by scoring 41.4 points per game, but a) they ran a ton of plays, and b) they did not exactly face a murderer's row of defenses outside of Notre Dame (and they only scored 13 offensive points versus the Irish, winning because of a blocked punt touchdown, a pick six, and a two-point blocked PAT return). They did, however, play in some ridiculously fun games; they combined for 100 points and lost via hail mary to East Carolian ... they shocked Notre Dame ... and down the stretch, they combined for 91 points with Rice, 106 points with Southern Miss, and 97 points with Hawaii, and won all three games.

While Tulsa may not have actually had the sixth-best offense in the country, one thing was apparent: they improved by leaps and bounds as the year progressed. So did the defense, for that matter. After a start that would have netted the Golden Hurricane an 0-6 start had they been playing average opponents every week (instead of, say, Bowling Green, Central Arkansas and Memphis), TU began to figure things out.

First Four Games: Opponents 35.9 Adj. PPG, Tulsa 27.4 (-8.5)
Next Five Games: Opponents 31.2, Tulsa 30.7 (-0.5)
Final Four Games: Tulsa 37.2, Opponents 24.1 (+13.1)

By November, Tulsa was one of the best mid-major teams in the country; they finished the season by trouncing a home Hawaii squad in the Hawaii Bowl. Apparently they did a little too well in the end, as Pittsburgh eventually hired Todd Graham away after their hire of Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Heywood fell through. TU was unexpectedly forced to find a new coach in the offseason, eventually zeroing in on Blankenship. If he leads Tulsa as well as he led Tulsa Union, the Golden Hurricane will be good a long time. Still, the high-school-to-college coaching jump doesn't always work out amazingly well, so we'll see.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 49 55 50
RUSHING 37 37 38 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 69 72 63 41
Standard Downs 57 66 54 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 40 33 47 84
Redzone 88 105 72
Q1 Rk 44 1st Down Rk 69
Q2 Rk 84 2nd Down Rk 31
Q3 Rk 48 3rd Down Rk 64
Q4 Rk 23

Tulsa's recent identity has been one of offense, offense, speed and offense. The Golden Hurricane ran plays at the highest possible rate and attempted to wear down weaker, slower Conference USA defenses. Looking at their recent win totals (2009 aside), it worked. With Blankenship in charge, it is doubtful that much will change, though it's worth noting that new offensive coordinator Greg Peterson does not have the same pace in his background. A Bill Snyder disciple who spent 12 years with Kansas State and was Northern Colorado's O.C. last year, Peterson will likely aim for the same type of balance to which Tulsa has become accustomed.

Lord knows Peterson shouldn't want to change too much. TU had a rock solid 2010, running Graham's and Herb Hand's Chad Morris' high-pace, high-run% attack. Though quarterback G.J. Kinne (3,650 yards, 7.9 per pass, 60% completion rate, 31 TD, 10 INT) may be the face of the offense, it's for his legs (725 pre-sack rushing yards, -2.4 Adj. POE) as much as his arm; the Golden Hurricane were much more effective on the ground (37th in Rushing S&P+, 69th in Passing S&P+), and he was the leading rusher.

Aside from pace, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Tulsa personality, in regard to how (or if) Peterson makes some changes, is how they shared the wealth last season. A receiver (Damaris Johnson) had 560 yards rushing, a running back (Charles Clay) had 526 yards receiving, and nine receivers were targeted at least five percent of the time (with only one targeted more than 16%). Some offenses go with one primary running back; for all intents and purposes, Tulsa went with five (six if you include Kinne). This was a true "get the ball in the hands of your playmakers by any means necessary" offense, one with high variability in every possible way, and that's probably not something to which Peterson subscribed at Kansas State.

Other tidbits:

  • So which playmakers return? Well, you've got an incredible weapon in Damaris Johnson (872 receiving yards, 15.3 per catch, 62% catch rate; 560 rushing yards, 10.2 per carry, +21.0 Adj. POE; 11 combined TDs). You've got receiver-only types in Thomas Roberson (367 receiving yards, 12.2 per catch, 54% catch rate as a freshman), Ricky Johnson (351 yards, 16.0 per catch, 60% catch rate) and Genesis Cole (205 yards, 12.1 per catch, 71% catch rate). You've got running backs Alex Singleton (391 yards, 4.7 per carry, +4.9 Adj. POE) and Ja'Terian Douglas (335 yards, 7.8 per carry, +4.0 Adj. POE as a freshman). And you've got a couple more utility guys in Trey Watts (197 rushing yards, 172 receiving yards) and Willie Carter (299 receiving yards, 162 rushing yards). You've got a lot, in other words.
  • Perhaps most exciting: Tulsa returns seven offensive linemen with starting experience, including all five of last year's starters, and 99 career starts. Tyler Holmes (tackle), Clint Anderson (guard) and Trent Dupy (center) are all two-year starters, and guard Stetson Burnett started nine games as a freshman last season. They had one of the better mid-major offensive lines when it comes to run blocking, and while their sack rates were poor, that might have had something to do with G.J. Kinne; he strikes me as a "gotta make a play" type who, like SMU's Kyle Padron, might tend to hold onto the ball a bit too long sometimes.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 71 58 75
RUSHING 51 40 58 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 84 74 89 85
Standard Downs 80 67 90 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 76 76 76 38
Redzone 97 89 104
Q1 Rk 68 1st Down Rk 74
Q2 Rk 59 2nd Down Rk 81
Q3 Rk 102 3rd Down Rk 81
Q4 Rk 102

New defensive coordinator Brent Guy inherits a unit that struggled quite a bit with big plays, especially in the passing game. They got after the quarterbacks rather nicely, but if they didn't get there, they were probably giving up a big play. And really, that probably wasn't the end of the world for Graham, Hand and company; a fast scoring drive for the opponent just gave the Tulsa offense further opportunity to wear opposing defenses down with pace.

Like the offense (only, not as good), quite a few weapons return, including five of the top six from what was potentially the best, and youngest, unit on the defense: the linebackers. We'll start with an absolute missile in weakside linebacker Shawn Jackson. Jackson managed 68.5 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups as a grayshirt freshman last season. He joins three other sophomores -- Donnell Hawkins, Cody Wilson and OLB/S hybrid DeWitt Jennings (combined: 56.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) -- and senior Curnelius Arnick (89.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 4 PBU) to form a unit that made (and likely allowed) a metric ton of big plays. Experience here will do Tulsa significant favors.

Really, the entire front seven could be strong. Four of the top five linemen return, including end and playmaker Tyrunn Walker (32.5 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 3 PBU). The line did not hold up well to good run blocking, and I guess I shouldn't use the word "strong" here ... so instead, I'll just say that Brent Guy's first run defense will likely be better than his first pass defense.

Other tidbits:

  • One would have expected Tulsa's pass defense to struggle last year considering the two best safeties were a freshman and a sophomore, and the cornerback ranks were so thin that Jamad Williams had to play both ways. Now-sophomore Marco Nelson () and now-junior Brian Moore () should be at the helm of an improved group of safeties -- trial by fire typically pays off down the line -- but cornerback is still uncertain. John Flanders (40.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) looks like a keeper, but two of the top four (including Williams) are gone, and the depth wasn't good before they left.
  • A little bit more about Brent Guy: as Boise State defensive coordinator from 1998-00, he improved their defense from terrible to bad, then followed head coach Dirk Koetter to Arizona State in 2001. The Sun Devils' D regressed for a couple of years, then surged in 2004, enough to the point where he got the Utah State job that more or less ended his career trajectory. Utah State's defenses did improve (they were decent against the run but struggled against the pass), but their offense did not and he was shown the door after four years.

    Steve Kragthorpe brought him on for his doomed final season at Louisville, and by last year Guy could only find work as UNLV's LBs coach. It seems he's at least a decent defensive mind whose career took a step backwards because he took two jobs that would have doomed just about anybody (Utah State head coach, Louisville dead man walking). And with the personnel he inherits, the "good versus run, less good versus pass" tendencies he showed at Utah State could continue.

Tulsa's 2010 Season Set to Music

There are two screamingly obvious choices here, and I'm not so much of a music snob that I can resist. Should I go with The Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" or Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane"? We'll go with young Neil because I didn't have to sit through an ad to get to that YouTube clip.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

In the last 50 years, two non-service academy mid-majors have beaten Notre Dame in South Bend: BYU in 1994 and Tulsa last year. Granted, the Irish have been taken down by Navy (1961, 2007, 2009, 2010) and Air Force (1983, 1984, 1996, 2007) four times each in that span ... but still. Kudos, 'Cane.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 60
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 70
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +17 / +13.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.7

Without knowing what changes, if any, are in store with Blankenship and his staff, it's hard to completely know what to think about Tulsa's prospects for 2011, so I'm just going to press forward as if nothing will change. Tulsa returns as much proven talent on offense as anybody in Conference USA; Damaris Johnson is a star, G.J. Kinne appears to be a strong leader and the offensive line is strong and experienced. The defense lags behind a bit, but the front seven should be solid and Shawn Jackson's ceiling is extremely high. There's a lot to like here, so I'm going to assume Tulsa would be pretty good in 2011 no matter who happened to be head coach... long as they survive September. The best Tulsa squad ever would probably still start 1-3 this season, with road trips to Oklahoma and Boise State and a visit from Oklahoma State. If they make it to October 1 with their spirit intact, however, they could get rolling just like they did last year. Trips to Rice and UTEP are far from intimidating, and the Golden Hurricane get SMU and Houston at home. Only the trip to UCF is a likely loss. Ten wins are unlikely unless TU wins the CUSA title game and their bowl, but their conference title hopes are strong.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.