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Thank you, Tulsa

It wasn’t the ending they wanted, but this was still a memorable season for the Golden Hurricane.

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

We don’t often talk about the runner-up in the AAC. That’s how relevant the AAC has become in the world of college football. The focus is on the winner and how they have a chance to win a New Year’s Six bowl game, and lately it’s been this conference dominating that conversation in the Group of 5. Cincinnati’s the latest team to win that honor after a thrilling 27-24 win over Tulsa, and I hope the Bearcats make a statement against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (a game that UCF did exactly that in 2017). But let’s take a moment to appreciate the Golden Hurricane.

Something I admitted on the Golden Hurricast this past week was that I didn’t expect Tulsa to be anything better than a .500 football team. The offense was too reliant on the run and the defense only had a couple of great players. Turns out I was dead wrong about this team, and I’m thankful they put me in my place. They reminded me why I love this game so much. A team that had no business competing for a conference championship defied expectations all year, something that Philip Montgomery deserves a ton of credit for doing.

Programs don’t stick with guys like Montgomery. After winning 16 games in his first two seasons, he went 9-27. The administration decided to give him a sixth year, and what a decision that turned out to be. A conference championship apperance, defensive plaeyr of the year, and a number of memories that we won’t soon forget. This team was truly special, even if it didn’t end in a title.

I’ve been on the Zaven Collins bandwagon for a couple years now, but I never expected it to take the path it did in 2020. Collins became a household name for many around the country thanks to his spectacular season, one that saw him win AAC Defensive Player of the Year. There were so many plays that he made that it’s tough to pick just one. It’s crazy to think that not many programs wanted him out of high school, especially with his length.

Collins made a number of plays because he was experienced and studied film. He knew where plays were going as son as the ball was snapped, and it helped him make plays that not many other players could.

There’s also his power.

There was the interception that sealed the win against SMU, which was an incredible play, but then he made a Heisman statement the following week with this one.

Collins was one of just two players who were unanimous first team All-AAC selections, and the awards will continue to flood in when it’s all said and done. Collins was incredible this year on a defense that defied expectations.

While Zaven Collins stole the spotlight, it was the Golden Hurricane defense that turned Tulsa into the conference contender. Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV were dominant on the outside, with safeties Kendarin Ray and Christian Williams stepping up as well. Collins’ partner at linebacker, Justin Wright, is second on the team in tackles and first in tackles for loss. Jaxon Player and the defensive line made life difficult for the opposing offense. This group kept the Golden Hurricane in this weekend’s game, and the improvement we saw from them deserves a ton of respect. When adversity hit, this team never quit.

Tulane had Tulsa right where they wanted them, or so they thought. Nearly everyone on the depth chart seemed to have played a role in Tulsa’s success this year. Down to third string quarterback Davis Brin, Tulsa stormed back to keep it’s undefeated conference record alive. First, there was this dart on 4th and 15 to tie the game.

Then, of course, the Hail Mary to tie the game again after Tulane drove down to go up seven.

This team never quit, no matter what. They lost their starting running back, Shamari Brooks, to an ACL injury before the season even began. Corey Taylor, Deneric Prince, and T.K. Wilkerson stepped up big time, and give fans hope for the backfield of the future. Oh, and little thing called COVID-19 forced these kids to follow new guidelines just so they could play a game. This team never wavered, and put on a show for the conference.

It wasn’t the ending they had in mind, but Tulsa has a ton to be proud of, and we have even more thank thank them for this year. A bowl win, should the game happen, would be a great way to end this season. Tulsa reminded us why we love this sport. Teams who are overlooked remind us that anything is possible, something the College Football Playoff committee should keep in mind. This was a team struggling to put together wins that found its way to the conference championship. They just ran into a really good Cincinnati team. No shame in that. So, to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane players, coaches, and everyone who played a role in this wild ride: thank you. Let’s do it again next year.