The Golden Hurricane got off to an undesirable start as they dropped a 28-23 decision at Iowa State in their opener. They bounced back with seven consecutive victories over Tulane (45-10), Nicholls (66-16), Fresno State (27-26), UAB (49-42), Marshall (45-38), Texas-El Paso (33-11) and Rice (28-24), which made the Conference USA theirs to lose with four regular season games remaining.
Tulsa then came up short in a late season non-conference bout at Arkansas, falling 15-19 before it went on to trounce Houston by 34 points when it returned to league play. The Golden Hurricane then edged UCF, 23-21, before suffering their only conference loss of the season at SMU (35-27). They needed overtime to defeat UCF in the conference championship game, but got the job done and escaped with a 33-27 victory. They then closed out the season by avenging an early season loss with a win over Iowa State (31-17) in the Liberty Bowl.
Coach Bill Blankenship has been productive in his two seasons at the helm of his alma mater, compiling a 19-8 record thus far. He was a member of the staff as a wide receivers, running backs and special teams coach for four seasons before stepping into the head coach position.
OFFENSE: While the C-USA featured many offensive units that loved to air the ball out, Tulsa took a different approach and dedicated its gameplan to establishing the run in 2012, which led to the ninth best ground attack in the nation at 245.7 yards per game. The offense was very successful overall, producing 457.1 total yards and 34.7 points per contest.
Three of Tulsa's top four rushers return to the fold, including superstar senior Trey Watts. The 5-foot-11, 190 pound tailback tallied 1,108 rushing yards, 343 receiving yards and returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season while averaging more than six yards per carry.
"The guys we don't need to see as much are guys like Trey," said Blankenship. "He's serious about improving himself. He doesn't have to prove himself to us, but he's trying to improve his game, and that's what I get from the veterans. Without Trey we wouldn't have a whole lot of offensive firepower right now."
Senior tailback Ja'Terian Douglas came close to the 1,000-yard mark on only 137 carries, which is an indication of how explosive he can be in the open field. The Golden Hurricane will need to find someone to replace Alex Singleton, who was the team's main goal line threat (24 TDs) and most frequent carrier (202 attempts).
Senior quarterback Cody Green will return to his starting position under center after an inconsistent junior year. The Golden Hurricane's quarterback had an impressive start to 2012, throwing 11 touchdowns in his first six games. However, he finished the year with only 17 touchdowns to 11 interceptions after throwing a pick in five consecutive games to close out the schedule.
Although the tight end position is a question mark, the presence of Keyarris Garrett (845 yards, 67 receptions), Jordan James (568 yards, 41 receptions) and Thomas Roberson (489 yards, 29 receptions) in the lineup gives Green plenty of options in the aerial attack. Garrett made countless clutch plays last season as a junior and was responsible for nine of the team's 19 touchdown grabs.
Only three teams in the FBS allowed fewer sacks than Tulsa last season, but that might not be easy to repeat as only two starters from that unit are back. Senior right tackle Stetson Burnett (6-4, 303) is going to be the leader of a group that is expected to feature three underclassmen.
DEFENSE: The Golden Hurricane's defensive performance was a strong factor in the success last season. They led the C-USA in total defense (347.8) and finished second in scoring defense (23.6 ppg). The push up front was phenomenal, lifting Tulsa to a third place national finish in sacks per game (3.8) along with the fifth highest tackles for loss per game average (7.9).
"I think it suits us. I think that playing defense and being tough never goes out of style," said Blankenship on his defense's hard-hitting style. "If you can play defense and be physically tough, you can play for championships. If I could design it, I'd like to be a little more explosive and open with what we do (offensively). But when you can play defense, it allows you to take care of the football and take less chances."
Reaching those numbers again in 2013 will be difficult with only three of the starters from last season's defense returning. There will be four new faces up front featuring junior defensive end Brentom Todd (6-3, 239), who finished his sophomore season with 35 total tackles, 12.5 for loss and a forced fumble.
Senior Shawn Jackson (6-0, 251) and junior Mitchell Osborne (6-2, 210) are going to be the leaders of the defensive unit from the linebacker position. Jackson's 88 total tackles last season make him the team's leading returning tackler and Osborne is expected to build upon a strong campaign that yielded 40 total stops. Sophomore Trent Martin will be the third starter at linebacker for Tulsa with 39 tackles, including 26 solo tackles, has had two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass break-up, two quarterback hurries and two blocked kicks to his credit after one year.
Defensive coordinator Brent Guy has a leader to rely on in the secondary in senior safety Marco Nelson. The 6-0 defensive back has picked off eight passes in his career and has started since his freshman year. Sophomore Michael Mudoh (5-10, 198) will join him in the secondary, while freshmen Darnell Walker Jr, and Darnell Williams start at the corners.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Watts is going to continue to serve as a return specialist as well after earning a spot on the Conference USA-Second Team. Despite Tulsa's success overall last season, it did not have great numbers in the kicking games. Sophomore kicker Daniel Schwarz went 12-of-18 on field goal tries, while junior punter Cole Way averaged 39.1 yards per attempt. The extra year of experience should be beneficial for both.
OUTLOOK: Although the Conference USA will be weaker this season, Tulsa will find it difficult tying the school record for wins again. It is hard though, to picture a Blankenship team not competing for the conference crown.
The Golden Hurricane begin their season on the road against a defensive-minded Bowling Green squad from the MAC before taking on Colorado State in their home opener. They will then hit the road in hopes of upsetting Oklahoma and have another tough non-conference tilt the following week when Iowa State pays a visit to H.A. Chapman Stadium. After the Cyclones, Tulsa will trudge through its conference schedule which includes Rice, Texas-El Paso, Tulane, Texas-San Antonio, East Carolina, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and North Texas.
Blankenship's team could once again win the C-USA title, but winning at ECU and Louisiana Tech are going to be key to that run. Tulsa is not the only team in the league to be rebuilding and the offensive system it has in place may be strong enough to avoid too much of a drop off.