The final week of the regular season sends Cincinnati to Tulsa, Oklahoma. When the Bearcats and Tulsa Golden Hurricane met last November, it resulted in a combined offensive explosion. Cincinnati pulled away in the second half while amassing 654 offensive yards, as opposed to the 588 yards for the Golden Hurricane, in a 49-38 victory. The outcome put Tulsa at 5-5 and moved the Bearcats a game ahead to 6-4 and helped them clinch bowl eligibility. Tulsa would go on to a 6-7 season which culminated with a 55-52 loss against Virginia Tech in the Independence Bowl.
While Tulsa still brings plenty of offensive bullets into this season's upcoming Nov. 25th matchup, there are some major changes to account for. Keyarris Garrett, the wide receiver who victimized the Bearcats secondary for 168 yards on nine catches, has moved on to a free agent contract with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. The departure of Tulsa co-offensive coordinators Sterlin Gilbert and Matt Mattox will definitely leave second-year coach Phillip Montgomery with a heavier burden to carry as well. Also, Mike Bloesch has been promoted to offensive line coach after initially holding the offensive quality control/assistant offensive line coach position.
The Montgomery-Gilbert-Mattox offense scored at least 40 points seven times while averaging 37 points per game for the 2015 season. Unfortunately, Tulsa's offensive success ultimately lead to the Texas Longhorns poaching Gilbert and Mattox. How much of an effect this personnel change has on Tulsa's potent spread offense remains to be seen. One can only imagine that at the very least there will be an early adjustment period for the previously high-powered attack. The good news (for Tulsa t least) is that there is plenty of talent on the roster to take the offense to prolific heights in 2016.
En route to amassing an average of 507 yards per game, quarterback Dane Evans further solidified his position as the leader of the offensive unit. Evans put up 375 yards and two touchdowns against the Bearcats last season on 30-of-49 pass attempts. Evans continues to develop, has all of the makings of a star and is on pace to become the all-time passing leader at Tulsa before the season ends. Stopping this Evans-led offense may be a near-impossible feat once it starts clicking, and that's a downright scary prospect for any opposing defense.
The offensive line, under Bloesch's leadership, will be the catalyst for the Golden Hurricane powder keg. The nucleus of Alex Pagonis, Zac Uhles, Willie Wright, Evan Plagg, and Blake Belcher provide the offense with a seasoned group of experienced leadership that needs to produce quickly. The main focus will be keeping Evans healthy and upright for the entire season.
At wide receiver, five of the 12 listed players are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. How quickly, and how well, this unit develops will go a long way to determine the ultimate overall offensive success of the Golden Hurricane in 2016. Joshua Atkinson and Justin Hobbs will provide Evans with a pair of big targets. Atkinson, 6'2", really came into his own last season when he more than doubled his reception and yardage count. He will be counted on to continue his upward trajectory, especially with the lack of on-field experience at the position. Hobbs provides a lot from his imposing 6'4", 207 pound frame and lots of potential for growth. While not a big target, Keevan Lucas provides a lot of productivity when he is on the field. Prior to suffering a season ending knee injury, Lucas had 26 catches for 409 yards and five touchdowns.
The diminutive sized running back tandem of Ramadi Warren and D'Angelo Brewer make their return. The duo combined for 1,310 rushing yards in 2015, of which 221 came against Cincinnati. With only five running backs listed on the roster and the departure of Zack Langer, the experienced pair will be relied upon to consistently provide the bulk of the running attack.
The burden will ultimately fall on this side of the ball if Tulsa is to take a big step forward this season. In 2015, this defense allowed 6,976 total yards for an average of 6.59 yards per play. It allowed 30 points eleven times. That makes it very difficult to win many games, no matter how powerful of an offense you happen to possess. The fact that the Hurricane was able to win six games last season should provide a clear indication as to how effective the offense really was. The onus is on defensive coordinator Bill Young and co-defensive coordinator Brian Norwood to make effective changes which will provide more opportunities for the team to be victorious.
Providing a productive pass rush, which only accumulated 21 sacks last season, and improving upon the 117th ranked rush defense is of absolute importance. Kolton Shindelar and Jesse Brubaker provide some leadership on the defensive line where any improvement would be noticeable. Senior linebackers Matt Linscott and Trent Martin provide strength in a unit that produced the majority of tackles for loss a season ago.
The secondary brings up some cause for concern. The graduation of starting cornerback Darrell Williams, along with the repositioning of Brodrick Umblance, leaves the cornerback group very thin in experience. Almost half of the listed cornerbacks are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Upperclassmen like Kerwin Thomas and Johnell Celistan will be called upon to lead this group of neophytes. Things appear to be more promising at the safety position where tested players Jeremy Brady and McKinley Whitfield lead a group of players with good potential.
It's not hard to project a more fruitful season for a talented Tulsa team. Montgomery appears to be a very talented head coach with a clear vision for his program. Now that he has had time to get comfortable with his surroundings, he's beginning to recruit the type of talent that fits that vision. Offensively, the Golden Hurricane should continue to build upon last season's success. But an abysmal defense can only improve so much in one season, and it will take time to develop the raw talent of their incoming recruits. The Bearcats should be victorious in a game very similar to last season's outcome, though it might take a bit more effort to put Tulsa away this time around.