by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ve seen plenty of high schools with larger enrollments than the University of Tulsa, which makes the Golden Hurricane’s consistent ability to punch above its weight on the gridiron all the more remarkable. Boasting of an undergraduate enrollment of only 2987, Tulsa is the smallest FBS school, with Rice and Wake Forest being close behind. And while the Owls and Demon Deacons have mostly struggled on the football field over the last half century, the Golden Hurricane has often been a force. Indeed, the school came close to producing back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners when competing in the Missouri Valley Conference in the late ‘60s, when QB Jerry Rhome (in 1964) and end Howard Twilley (left; in 1965) both finished runners-up for the award, with Rhome involved in one of the closest Heisman ballots in history when finishing just 74 votes behind winner John Huarte of Notre Dame.

Those teams, coached by former Tulsa All-American Glenn Dobbs, were visionary, preferring to move the ball via the aerial route; the Rhome-Twilley combination alone broke 20 NCAA records for total offense, passing, receiving, and scoring. Rhome’s successor at QB in 1965, Billy Guy Anderson, established 10 school records that year and passed for a then-NCAA single-game record of 502 yards against Colorado State. Much of that success was due to the presence of Twilley, who left Tulsa as the NCAA’s all-time leading receiver with 261 catches, a record that stood for an astounding 21 years (and remember, in Twilley’s days, freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity competition, so his records were set in only three seasons). The Golden Hurricane qualified for back-to-back Bluebonnet Bowls at Houston’s Rice Stadium in those years, first beating Johnny Vaught’s Ole Miss in 1964 (Twilley going up for a pass in that game at right), then losing in the rain to Tennessee in 1965. In the ‘70s, the school continued to produce top-notch talent, mostly at wide receiver, where names such as Steve Largent and Drew Pearson would eventually become familiar in the NFL, and others such as WR Rickey Watts and OT Steve August would also go on enjoy productive pro careers.

Much earlier, Tulsa became the first school to ever participate in five straight New Year’s bowl games, beginning that stretch in 1942 that would include two Sugar Bowls, one Orange Bowl, one Sun Bowl, and one Oil Bowl (yes, there was such a game, with the Golden Hurricane an appropriate participant for a game played in an appropriate locale, Houston; Georgia was the opponent on January 1, 1946). Even earlier than that, a couple of legendary college coaches, Francis “Show ‘Em No Mercy” Schmidt and “Gloomy” Gus Henderson, had won big in short stints at Tulsa before moving on to greater glories at bigger-name institutions.

Not that there weren’t a few lowlights along the way, including being the last major college team to allow 100 points in a game, which happened in 1968 at Houston, when Bill Yeoman’s explosive Cougars scored 49 points in the 4th quarter en route to a 100-6 win. Fifteen Golden Hurricane starters and numerous reserves were weak and feverish with the flu heading into the game, one that Dobbs had considered canceling because of the manpower shortage that resulted in only two defensive tackles making the trip to Houston. A linebacker in the program during that 1968 season who can recall that game was none other than TV’s “Dr. Phil” McGraw, who transferred to Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Texas the following year after Dobbs retired.

Nowadays, we seem to be in the middle of another “golden” (no pun intended) era for Tulsa football. Six bowl visits in the past eight years have established the Golden Hurricane as a force in Conference USA and as a postseason regular. Recent coaches Steve Kragthorpe (to Louisville) and Todd Graham (to Pitt) did well enough at Tulsa to be lured to BCS assignments in the Big East. The new man in charge for 2011 is Bill Blankenship, most recently Graham’s receivers coach since 2007 but before that a legendary high school coach in the area at Tulsa Union High. Blankenship is further ingrained into the Golden Hurricane football culture as a QB for Tulsa in the late ‘70s.

And Blankenship is hardly inheriting a bare cupboard. Eighteen starters, including ten from one of the nation’s most-prolific offenses in 2010, return to the mix from last year’s 10-3 team that, among other things, made the Golden Hurricane’s first-ever trip to Notre Dame and beat the Fighting Irish, Golden Dome and all, by a 28-27 count, en route to winning seven straight at the end of the season that concluded with a 62-35 blowout of host Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

There won’t be too much tinkering done by Blankenship and new o.c. Greg Peterson (Colorado State’s o.c. in 2008-09 before moving to Northern Colorado last year) to a strike force that ranked fifth nationally in total offense (506 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.4 ppg) in 2010. Tulsa’s full-throttle, no-huddle “O” should be as fast-paced, diverse, and unpredictable as ever, with sr. QB G.J. Kinne the perfect trigger-man for the go-go attack. Conference USA’s resigning MVP passed for 3650 yards and 31 TDs a year ago, while running for another 561 yards and 7 scores. All-American WR Damaris Johnson is arguably the nation’s top homerun threat and has already set NCAA career records for all-purpose (7796) and kick return (3417) yardage, with four return TDs in his career. The well-coordinated OL returns en masse, and there is plenty of experienced depth and options at the RB and H-back positions. Remember, Tulsa was also well-balanced last season, ranking 15th in rush stats, and look for electric soph RB Trey Watts, whose dad J.C. was an Oklahoma QB before becoming a high-profile Congressman and sparring partner for James Carville as a political TV pundit on CNN, to provide a coast-to-coast dimension out of the backfield, with Johnson an additional weapon on reverse plays after gaining 560 rush yards on top of his receiving and return yards a year ago.

About the only concern for Blankenship and Peterson is depth behind Kinne, as the lone backup with any experience, jr. Shavodrick Beaver, transferred to Dr. Phil’s alma mater Midwestern State in the spring. Former Nebraska QB Cody Green has transferred in from Lincoln, but will not be eligible until next season.

So why don’t we think Tulsa is a possible BCS Buster? Two reasons, one of which we will get to momentarily. In the meantime, even the most wild-eyed Golden Hurricane booster would admit that Tulsa’s defense needs some work after last season when ranking 111th in total “D” at 451 ypg, although the platoon did force a nation’s high 36 turnovers, helping Tulsa to a number two ranking in TO margin.

Eight starters return for new defensive coordinator Brent Guy, a former Utah State HC and a well-regarded d.c. in prior stints at Boise State and Arizona State. Guy has junked last year’s unorthodox 3-3-5 looks for more-traditional 4-3 alignments in hopes of solidifying what was the nation’s bottom-ranked pass defense last year, allowing whopping 4147 yards through the air and 33 TD passes. But it certainly wasn’t the worst pass defense in the land, not after recording a nation’s best 24 picks, and Guy is looking for the secondary to curb its gambling style just a tad and to play with a bit more consistency while maintaining its big-play instincts. Free safety Marco Nelson and “bandit” Dexter McCoil are natural ball hawks (each had 6 picks LY) in center field, and incoming CB J.D. Ratliff is rated as one of the top juco transfers in the country. Plenty of playmakers also populate the LB corps, led by soph Shawn Jackson, a roughneck with a difference-making bent who as a frosh made a whopping 15 ½ tackles for loss and 8 ½ sacks in 2010 and returned a pick 66 yards for a TD at Notre Dame, and sr. Curnelius Amick. Teams passed with such impunity last season that it was hard to tell if Tulsa’s rush “D” was really as good as its 35th national rank a year ago, but Guy was nonetheless seeking proper run-stuffers at the tackle spots in spring as he rebooted the stop unit.

Oh yes, that other reason we’re not holding our breath for Tulsa to emerge as a BCS Buster? It’s the schedule, which has the Golden Hurricane facing three likely top ten foes in Oklahoma (at Norman), Oklahoma State, and Boise State (on the blue carpet) by September 24 in what is arguably the most-challenging non-conference slate in the country. Why didn’t AD Lawrence Cunningham consult Bill Snyder on how to properly schedule intersectional foes? Tulsa sights are more realistically set upon the CUSA title this fall.

Summary...Despite Todd Graham taking much of his staff with him to Pitt, CUSA sources report the transition between regimes has been relatively seamless, thanks largely to new HC Bill Blankenship’s familiarity with the Tulsa program and keeping the operation running much as it has the past four years. Which is an especially good idea with all of that offensive firepower on hand after the Golden Hurricane closed last season with a rush, winning seven straight to close the campaign and covering 9 of its last 10 games. Expect a slow start in September with that brutal early schedule, which means matching last year’s 10 wins might be difficult. But as long as QB Kinne avoids injury, Tulsa’s high-octane offense should help it stay in the thick of the CUSA title chase. And any improvement on the defensive side could make the Golden Hurricane the team to beat in its half of the conference, especially with expected West showdowns vs. SMU and Houston both taking place at cozy Skelly Stadium-Chapman Field.

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