Team: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2014 record: 2-10 (2-6 AAC)
Recap: Bill Blankenship’s tenure as Tulsa’s head coach started out really well, winning 19 games through his first two seasons, including an 11-3 campaign that featured a Liberty Bowl victory over Iowa State in 2012. However, despite a fast start to his coaching career, the Golden Hurricane hit a brick wall and crashed—they finished 5-19 from 2013-14, beating opponents that ended up combining for an 18-44 (Colorado State ended up 8-6).
Take away a miserable outing against Oklahoma in Week 2, and Tulsa’s offense was actually pretty solid in 2014. On the verge of one-dimensional and slightly inconsistent, sure, but you wouldn’t think a team putting up 27.1 points per game in conference play would limp into the offseason with two wins. Defense was completely optional—opponents exceeded the 40-point mark five different times—as the Golden Hurricane ranked dead last in the AAC (behind SMU!) in yards per play allowed (6.95) and second-to-last in scoring (39.3).
Former Baylor offensive coordinator Phil Montgomery will have his hands full to say the least, but serving as Art Briles’ assistant—who built Houston into an offensive juggernaut before doing the same with the Bears—for the last 12 years should have its immediate benefits with a roster that is built to have its fair share of shootouts in 2015.
Key player: Keevan Lucas, Jr., WR
Baylor’s offense is built to spread out the defense and eliminate the second line of defense once playmakers get the ball in open space. Thus, big plays are created. Lucas, who finished his sophomore season with 101 receptions for 1,219 yards and an AAC-high 11 touchdowns will again be the top target in a fun system that will only make him better.
Biggest strength: Depth at receiver
Nearly all of Tulsa’s wide receivers from last year’s unit return to the roster in 2015, and more experience here could prove to be extremely beneficial to this revamped offense. The Golden Hurricane ranked No. 3 in the AAC with 44 passing plays of 20-plus yards, and that number should only increase.
Biggest weakness: The entire defense
New defensive coordinator Bill Young has inherited one of the most difficult challenges anyone with his position could face—rebuilding a defense that finished 119th in scoring (39.3) last season, and allowed 30 points or more in 11 of 12 games. He’ll have a few viable pass rushers to work with right away, but stripping down everything else and starting from scratch won’t be easy.
Most important game: Every non-conference game that’s not Oklahoma
Tulsa went 0-4 during its non-conference slate last season, losing to FAU, Texas State, and Colorado State by a combined 57 points. It’ll be vital to at least win two between FAU, New Mexico, and UL-Monroe, as the ‘Hurricane see Memphis, UCF, Cincinnati, and Navy in AAC play.
Best-case scenario: 7-5 (4-4)
If Montgomery’s offense finds success right away—and to a certain extent, it should—there are seven games on the schedule that can be winnable, with the the right amount of points on the board. Tulsa will undoubtedly find itself in a handful of shootouts, and if the defense can make a few important stops from time to time, the postseason is attainable in Year 1.
Worst-case scenario: 2-10 (0-8)
Just because Baylor did it, doesn’t mean Tulsa will. Remember: It wasn’t until Year 3 where Art Briles led the Bears to a bowl game, and that was the first time his offense broke into the top 35 in scoring. Defense is going to be an issue, and all it will take is a few three-and-outs from a developing offense to put the game out of reach.
Early prediction: 5-7 (2-6)
Montgomery’s hire brings excitement and hype to a program looking to get back to its winning form, when it went 72-34 from 2005-2012. Five wins means no postseason for a third straight year, but it also means a big step in the right direction with a promising future.