Before this football season began, it was thought that the Tulsa Golden Hurricane would be the toughest competition to the Houston Cougars for the C-USA West championship. But as both teams head into game number nine this weekend, it's beginning to look like those fears might have been a bit overblown.
Tulsa is 4-4 on the season. More importantly, Tulsa is 2-2 in C-USA play having lost to UTEP and SMU the last two weeks. In fact, coming into Saturday night's game against the Cougars, Tulsa has lost three straight games, and those games have been close.
"That's two weeks in a row we've lost a close game," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said during Monday's teleconference. "And in this league you have to win the close games."
The Cougars understand those sentiments, of course, after having scored the game-winning TD against Southern Miss with just 21 seconds remaining. But just because Tulsa has lost three straight games, and just because the Cougars are on a roll, doesn't mean that the Cougars can take this Tulsa team lightly.
Despite their record, Tulsa offers up C-USA's number-two scoring defense (20.5 points per game) and number-two total defense (343.9 yards per game). Tulsa has the league's third best scoring offense (27.8 points per game), third-best total offense (389.5 yards per game), and third-best rushing game (154.75 yards per game).
So Tulsa does offer up a talented team. "What I've learned in my time here is that our toughest opponents have been in the conference because we know each other so well," Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin said at Tuesday's media luncheon. "There is not a lot of overlooking factor. We recognize each other, and we see each others' tape all of the time. We have to prepare this week like we have all year and go on the road and win."
Despite Tulsa's defensive numbers, the Cougars should dominate. The Cougars are C-USA's number one-offense in total yards, scoring, and passing. And the Cougars have shown this year that they can score on just about any defense, including major-conference defenses from Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.
"Case [Keenum] and all the talent they have over there...are just tremendous," Tulsa's Graham said. "It's the number-one offense in the country. They're very, very explosive. It's a big challenge for us...it's also a great opportunity for us to get our here and redeem ourselves and get back on the right track."
The Cougars are currently the number-one team in C-USA West. Since before the season began, the Cougars have made it clear that winning C-USA is the most important thing in their minds. And they're in the proverbial driver's seat because the only other one-loss C-USA West team is SMU, who the Cougars have defeated.
But a Cougar loss to Tulsa could bring those hopes crashing down as they would then be tied with Tulsa and UTEP in the standings, and those two teams would hold a tie-breaker over Houston.
"That's real important for us," receiver Tyron Carrier said. "We had that mistake at the beginning of the season [losing to UTEP] but we have our destiny in our hands now. We just need to take care of business."
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And the taking care of business will probably be easier if the Cougars don't repeat some of the things they did wrong against Southern Miss, namely commit penalties and turn the ball over. Doing that puts a team in a hole, and Sumlin doesn't like his team being in a hole, though he acknowledges that the Cougars are capable of winning games in multiple ways.
"Over the course of the last couple of weeks," he said, "we've seen our defense help our offense in some situations, our running game help our passing game and, certainly in the last three weeks, our kicking game came to the forefront and became a solid part of our team. It's really helped us by scoring points and creating turnovers and possessions for our offense."
But perhaps quarterback Case Keenum puts it best when he says that the team expects success when it goes out on the field. And maybe that's all that will be needed to defeat Tulsa: An expectation of success.
Then again, playing some dominating football won't hurt.