Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 3 Tulsa.
Tulsa historically hasn’t been a pop-in stop for coaches—the ones that have led the Golden Hurricane and then jumped to a Power Five program like John Cooper and Todd Graham understand that the program is a place that can make for a great launchpad, but to get any bounce, it takes a few years of sustained attention and persistence. That’s why those two both spent at least five seasons building the program into a powerhouse before ladder-climbing for a sexier school and bigger paycheck. The latest one to step into the role is Philip Montgomery, an offensive whiz that will almost certainly be coaching the next great program to fall on tough times. Montgomery, though, came to Tulsa wearing a black mark.
Montgomery previously coached under for Art Briles in some manner for 16 years, dating back to their high school coaching days; he ended the run when he stepped away from the offensive coordinator gig at Baylor in 2014 to take over at Tulsa. Thus far, like pretty much every Bears assistant except Briles’s son, Montgomery’s managed to escape the fallout of the sexual assault scandal, despite being one of the most powerful men on campus right up until the year before the scandal broke. Now, I briefly covered this ground last year, but as more and more bile continues to be spilled from the mouths of Baylor administrators, I keep feeling an itch in the back of my brain about the fact that Briles’s right-hand man, for whatever reason, was not even questioned by Pepper Hamilton investigators, according to Tulsa’s athletic director:
“Our stance is, he wasn’t contacted by anybody involved in that investigation,” Gragg said. “I was not contacted, and neither was anybody else on this campus.
“To us, it’s a non-issue. We want to focus on what we’re doing here.”
It doesn’t do Hurricane fans or Tulsa World readers any favors that the above quote appeared in a column that dropped this line a couple paragraphs later, declaring Montgomery’s ledger untainted based solely on the assumed results of an unseen investigative report:
Would his candidacy be damaged by his friendship/association with Briles? It shouldn’t. Again, Montgomery hasn’t been implicated in anything that went wrong at Baylor.
Remember, the only people to have even heard the results of the report are the Baylor leadership—the same ones that have consistently blamed the women on campus for their drinking habits instead of addressing the issue of pervasive sexism engulfing the private Baptist university and the look-the-other-way tendencies the money from a successful college football program brings in. Ian McCaw and Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) didn’t ring up Tulsa’s AD, telling them to stay the hell away from Montgomery? I’m fucking shocked. With both schools protected by outdated FOIA guidelines that prevent private schools from having to comply with public records requests, Montgomery will instead go on with his career, with his time at Baylor slowly receding further and further into a fog as he adds more and better jobs to his résumé; in 20 years, when he’s coaching Ohio State or whoever the fuck he ends up with, his stint with the Bears won’t even be mentioned on the telecast.
Now, breaking from the bleakness that is the reality of the business of college sports and its ongoing dysfunction, the outlook for Tulsa’s football team is... equally bleak.
Last season, the only losses Tulsa posted were to Ohio State, Houston, and Navy (one of these things is not like the others), as it rolled to a 10-3 finish that included a bowl victory and a second-place finish in the AAC West. Through four weeks, Tulsa is 1-3; with both an offense and defense that appear to be shells of their 2016 selves, things are going to get uglier before the Hurricane return to any sort of normalcy.
The prolific 2016 offense ranked seventh in the nation in scoring and the defense, while far from great, was at least good for holding opposing teams under the 40-point-plus totals its offense would regularly accrue. This season, neither one of those things are happening consistently. Tulsa, through graduation, unforeseen accounts of players not being quite as good as their billing, and constant injuries, is just unlucky as hell this year. Case in point: Two of the Hurricane’s three losses have resulted from heartbreaking, last-second field goals, and we’re only in Week 4.
It also doesn’t help that any of the following is true: Tulsa ranks last in the entire FBS in total defense through the opening three weeks; the Hurricane have repeatedly played down to the talent level of their opponents; and, most importantly, they no longer have quarterback Dane Evans to bail them out.
Evans is sorely missed, as is his rocket arm, and through four weeks, neither of the two new quarterback candidates have come close to displaying the kind of production their predecessor was able to crank out. He finished his career a Golden Hurricane legend, posting three straight seasons of throwing for 3,000-plus yards and 20-plus touchdowns; he ended with 11,680 yards and 84 touchdowns to 47 interceptions, making him the all-time passing yards leader in program history.
The man currently trying to fill those shoes is Chad President, who beat out Luke Skipper for the starting spot after an in-game competition in the season-opening blowout loss to Oklahoma State. President was initially a Baylor recruit, but he pulled out when Jarrett Stidham committed to the school in December 2014—considering Stidham was one of Texas’s best recruits and the fact that none of the Baylor coaches informed President that they would be signing Stidham, President decided to take his career elsewhere. The Bears’ signing of Stidham came two weeks after Montgomery took the Tulsa job; after weighing the Hurricane and Houston, President opted to stick with the coach he’d developed the best relationship with, following Montgomery to Tulsa.
It hasn’t been the prettiest ride through four weeks. While President was a heralded dual-threat quarterback, the aerial half of that threat has been underwhelming—Montgomery admitted that Skipper is the superior passer—leading the team to lean heavily on the running game this season.
Through 107 passing attempts, President’s completed just 55 percent of his passes and notched one touchdown to match his single interception. On the ground, though, he’s been much more efficient, already rushing for 210 yards and four scores while cranking out an average of 6.1 yards per pop. President’s a big enough load at 6-foot-2, 226 pounds to take the punishment AAC linebackers can dish out, but it’s not the run game that’s hurting; as long as President continues to fail at pushing his team down the field and into the endzone with his arm, Tulsa’s running game will continue to be held back by loaded box after loaded box.
In what should be proof of just how talented this team is on the ground, this season’s deadly Hurricane rush attack has done nothing but progress, with veteran back D’Angelo Brewer already close to 600 yards on the ground, sophomore bruiser Corey Taylor averaging a score per game, and rookie speedster Shamari Brooks adding 276 and four scores of his own.
But the trio can only do so much—even with their incredible production, which one would think would loosen up opposing secondaries, they’ve still accounted for 13 of the offense’s 14 touchdowns this year. Tulsa opponents, if they’re smart, will continue to do their best to stop the up-tempo, spread-option onslaught heading their way, knowing full well that as long as their offense can take advantage of an inefficient and outright terrible Hurricane defense, then they won’t have to worry much about President beating them through the air. Through the opening four games in 2016, Tulsa was averaging 243 yards and 2.25 touchdowns through the air per game; this season, those numbers are 171 yards and .25 touchdowns per game. It’s fucking bleak, even with a proven entity like Justin Hobbs lining up out wide.
On the flip side of the field, the Hurricane defense has been so terrible that flipping to any other channel, even one of the mind-numbing, self-torture 24/7 infomercial ones, is preferable to watching what’s about to unfold. At least with the shopping channel you get a little diversity with what you’re shown on screen. With Tulsa, it’s almost always another touchdown, unless it’s playing a mediocre Mountain West team like New Mexico, in which case the defense decides it can stop an offense that scores just 24 points a game and the offense decides that now is a good time to lay down a steaming turd of a 13-point performance.
The passing defense hasn’t been much better than its offensive counterpart—the first three games all saw opponents top 300 yards—and early season injuries have robbed Tulsa of both its safeties, with Jordan Mitchell and Sam Gottsch having to be replaced by linebacker-turned-safety McKinley Whitfield. The Hurricane front is filled with talented players—look at Jeremy Smith at defensive end or linebacker Petera Wilson Jr., who didn’t play much in the opening three games, but shone brightly in the team’s loss to New Mexico, leading the defense with 17 tackles. But talent doesn’t mean much when you allow opponents to rush for a minimum of 221 yards per game. With Navy coming to town off a 569-yard rushing performance against Cincinnati last weekend, all anyone that cares about Tulsa can do is pray. And drink. Because God, while a miracle worker, has to draw the line somewhere.
Senior D’Angelo Brewer is the lifeblood of the Hurricane offense in a post-Dane Evans world. The Tulsa native is back after leading the team last season with 1,435 rushing yards and and seven scores; barring injury or a sudden change in scheme from Montgomery, the senior back is not only going to surpass his junior year mark, but obliterate it.
Just one-third of the way through the season, Brewer’s already nearly hit the halfway point of carries he accrued last season, with 114 to his name so far. He’s managed to maintain his efficiency, still chugging along for better than five yards a touch while compiling five scores—he had seven all of last year. Of course, this doesn’t mean Tulsa’s any better for it; the Hurricane are simply making a smart move and putting the ball in the hands of the player most likely to do something positive with it. Until President or Skipper has an awakening and starts hitting targets in the endzone, prepare for Brewer to keep chewing up yards and get perilously close to cracking the 2,000-yard mark. Again, you should flip the channel whenever you don’t see No. 4, but when he’s on, he’s a great watch.
Like any AAC team, anything short of an undefeated run, conference championship game victory, and at least two top-25 upsets will get you shuffled off to a no-name bowl game, same as the six-win teams that barely squeaked by. The way it’s currently going for the Hurricane, they’ll be lucky to find themselves in the latter group come season’s end. The offense is slowly figuring things out, but I have no faith that this defense, or this team, can be anything other than the AAC’s Texas Tech—fun as hell to watch when they have the ball, and shameful to observe when they don’t. Considering Evans is gone, I don’t see either hope or much of a reason to watch Tulsa this year; maybe they’ll surprise me these next couple weeks, but I doubt it.
Pretty easy rule: If you worked at Baylor, let alone coached the whole dang offense, while Ken Starr, Ian McCaw, and Art Briles ran the campus, you start at Dick and work your way backwards to Not Dick. Not fair? Maybe pick your friends and employer better next time.
Aug. 31: @ Oklahoma State (L 59-24)
Sept. 9: Louisiana-Lafayette (W 66-42)
Sept. 16: @ Toledo (54-51)
Sept. 23: New Mexico (L 16-13)
Sept. 30: Navy
Oct. 7: @ Tulane
Oct. 14: Houston
Oct. 21: @ UConn
Oct. 27: @ SMU
Nov. 3: Memphis
Nov. 18: @ South Florida
Nov. 25: Temple