Don Williams' country-rock classic "Tulsa Time" is about leaving your small town to try and become a big star... and failing at it.
USF and Tulsa have both been living on Tulsa Time of late. After a run of success in the mid-late 2000s, which included national rankings, bowl wins, and victories over Notre Dame, both schools hit rock bottom in 2013. But Tulsa's overall situation entering 2014 is more like USF's situation entering 2013 than it is now. Was TU's sudden drop from perennial contender to 3-9 an aberration, or is the bottom about to fall out of the program?
Tulsa's head coach is Bill Blankenship. After a long career at local football power Union High, Blankenship joined TU as a receivers coach, then succeeded Todd Graham about three Todd Graham job changes ago. Now in his fourth season, Blankenship needs to get the program back to the level of success it had under Graham and Steve Kragthorpe.
No snickering, please: Steve Kragthorpe immediately turned around a Tulsa program that had won two games in two years, and had a very successful tenure. Which means USF is now in a conference with a school where both Steve Kragthorpe and Todd Graham are fondly remembered. Yeah.
The offensive situation at Tulsa resembles where USF is right now.
At quarterback, a senior (Cody Green) is gone after an injury-ridden and up-and-down season, bequeathing the position to a guy who was thrown to the wolves as a freshman (Dane Evans), who won the starting job going into the season. The backup is an upperclassman who got better as he mastered the offense (Joseph Calcagni). A touted true freshman (Jabe Burgess) has learned quickly in pre-season camp and can't be ruled out entirely. Sound familiar?
The Tulsa quarterback roster also includes Ryan Rubley, son of Tulsa legend T.J. Rubley. Yes, Packers and Vikings fans, that guy.
Also like USF, Tulsa loses almost all of its rushing production from last season. Unlike USF, they are looking to returnees rather than incoming freshmen. Sophomore James Flanders ended the spring atop the depth chart. Junior college transfer Tavarreon Dickerson has scored some explosive touchdowns in practice, and could become their big play threat. Zack Langer will also see action.
Tulsa lost an intriguing backfield option when Pat Swilling Jr., son of the great New Orleans Saints linebacker and a former TU basketball player, was denied an eligibility extension. Swilling is at the center of the sexual assault accusations that led to the recent filing of a federal lawsuit against the school. TU maintains they investigated thoroughly, and Swilling was found "not responsible for violating the University of Tulsa Student Code of Conduct."
At the wide receiver position, Tulsa also loses a lot of production. They get back a proven target in Keyarris Garrett, who missed most of 2013 due to injury. Keevan Lucas put up good numbers as a true freshman.
What Tulsa doesn't have going into the season is an obvious gamebreaker - there's no clear parallel to USF's Andre Davis on the roster. TU's offense has historically been an efficient, short-drop, quick-throwing, dink-and-dunk affair, so that isn't necessarily an problem.
But this year's offense will be different. Like many coaches facing pressure to win, Bill Blankenship has changed offensive coordinators, promoting offensive line coach Denver Johnson, another guy with TU roots. Johnson has turned the Tulsa offense into a whole sort of general mish mash. Head coach Blankenship explains:
We've become a hybrid of Gus (Malzahn), Chad (Morris), Herb (Hand) and me and all these things we had kind of pieced together over the last eight or nine years. It was a mish-mash of offenses all kind of thrown together, and so we just kind of wiped the board clean and began to unify our terminology.
We felt like one of many problems a year ago was that we just weren't on the same page in terms of how we were teaching certain things, especially in the passing game. We felt like it was going to be vital that we get back to square one and that we're all on the same page, and got back to school sort of speak.
So Tulsa's offense is also in a "Year One" situation, even though they weren't in Year Zero last year as the Bulls were. Will this hybrid approach result in a cohesive offense, or is this just throwing everything at the wall in hope that something sticks?
If Tulsa's offense resembles USF's in 2014, their defense looks like USF's in 2013. They return ten starters from a unit that wasn't bad, despite the losing record.
Tulsa's best unit is probably the defensive backfield, where they return five starters: four players from last season, and safety DeMarco Nelson, who redshirted in 2013. They also have a lot of experienced backups, from having to play young players during an injury-ridden season.
The defensive line situation resembles USF's offensive line: they return a lot of young players, who spent the off-season getting bigger. You still wouldn't call them a big D-line, though; whether USF's bulked-up offensive line can handle Tulsa's bulked-up front seven will be key in this match-up.
The only starter Tulsa has to replace is middle linebacker Shawn Jackson, whose DeDe Lattimore-like productivity needs to be replaced. Emphasis on "has to" replace; Tulsa's post-spring depth chart listed two sophomores and a freshman as starters in the 4-3.
So which team will leave Oklahoma drivin' in a Pontiac, and which team will need more schoolin'?
This game would have been much more intriguing as an early-season game. USF and Tulsa have a lot of corresponding strengths and weaknesses, and similar sets of questions that need to become answers. By mid-October, we'll know how well each team has restaffed its offensive skill positions, mastered its offensive scheme, and super-sized its line play. Six games from now, either team could be a significant favorite, depending on how things go. Right now, it's a coin flip.
And there's one last thing USF and Tulsa have in common: they both have this game circled as one they must win if they are to have a successful season. Both teams will face preseason favorites Houston and Central Florida in the second half. Whoever doesn't win on October 18 may have a tough time attaining bowl eligibility.