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How Tulsa went from sleeper team to conference favorite

Even during an insane 2020 season, Tulsa proved that no adversity is too much for them to handle

NCAA Football: Southern Methodist at Tulsa Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Hot seat and Philip Montgomery went hand in hand coming into this season. After winning 15 games in his first two seasons at Tulsa, Montgomery followed that up with just seven wins over the next three. Still, there was a part of me that believed this team could surprise the AAC, but I never saw this coming. How they got to this point, however, is something few saw coming.

Two things have held Tulsa back over the past few years: quarterback play and a struggling defense. Montgomery’s struggled through a rotation of quarterbacks including Luke Skipper, Chad President, and Seth Boomer. None of them provided much consistency to the offense, and the Golden Hurricane relied heavily on the rushing attack. Even with talent at wide receiver. Montgomery went out and addressed that issue by bringing in Baylor transfer Zach Smith.

Did the three previous quarterbacks have some good games? Absolutely, but none are doing what Smith has for this team. Smith opens up the field for the offense, and doesn’t let talent at receiver go to waste. His best games have also come against Tulsa’s toughest competition. In their upset, come from behind win against SMU this weekend, Smith threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns. In the upset win against then #11 UCF, Smith threw for 273 yards and three more scores. Even in the opening week loss against #11 Oklahoma State, Smith made a number of impressive passes like the one above to move the ball down the field. Even when he hasn’t been the most accurate passer overall, it’s the clutch throws here and there that have given this offense new life and prepared them for anything.

Smith’s emergence reached a new level of appreciation when adversity hit the offense. With this team relying on the running game, any injuries to Shamari Brooks or Corey Taylor II could be devastating. Both have missed time this year, and Smith has kept the offense going forward even with new faces running the ball. Granted, Deneric Prince and T.K. Wilkerson have shown signs of greatness, and give the Golden Hurricane even more talent at the position, but it’s Smith that’s steadied the offense. Even with the offense’s success this year, this team wouldn’t be where it is without the other side of the ball.

Tulsa’s defense is the biggest surprise in the AAC, and it’s not even close. In the last three years, Tulsa’s defense was giving up 443 points and 32.8 points per game. This year has been a completely different story. The Golden Hurricane defense is giving up 375 yards (a significant improvement from previous units) and 21.3 points per game. They’re making plays in the backfield, and it’s the depth all around that makes this group special, even with an absolute stud still around to run the show.

Zaven Collins isn’t new to making plays. Fans are new to seeing him do it. Collins started as a freshman, and entered the 2020 season with a career 182 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. Now that Tulsa’s thriving, people are seeing him do what he does best: make plays. The surprising part is that he’s taking it to a new level in terms of production. Through just five games, Collins has amassed 33 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, and three interceptions.

There aren’t many players that have improved their NFL Draft stock, and teams are going to love what they see from Collins. Unfortunately for Tulsa, that means the potential of him leaving early, but they don’t have to worry about that just yet. Tulsa’s defense feeds off of Collins’ play, and it’s showing. This team already has 43 tackles for loss in five games (they had 61 all last year), and it’s not just one player stepping up to make big plays. Even on the backside, Kendarin Ray, Allie Green IV, and Akayleb Evans are some of the best defensive backs in college football, and they’ve provided balance to this group too. It’s a tough unit to beat, and they’re improvement gives the Golden Hurricane a chance to look at bigger goals.

Tulsa’s been the surprise of the conference, no question. I’ve been critical of Montgomery’s performances in the past, but I also knew this team had the potential to break out. Saturday’s 28-24 win over SMU was yet another test they passed, but it was also another message sent to legitimize this team. The offense is solid, the defense continues to make big plays, and it appears they’re destined to make the AAC Championship Game. In a year full of uncertainty, cancellations and adversity, Tulsa’s navigated it all. There’s not a test I’d put past them now, and a team that once saw its coach on the hot seat is suddenly one of the hottest teams in the country.