Time and Date: Saturday, September 19 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Boone Pickens Stadium — Stillwater, OK
Spread: Oklahoma State (-22.5)
ESPN FPI: Oklahoma State has 86.2% chance to win
All-time series: Oklahoma State leads, 42-28-5
Last meeting: Oklahoma State 40, Tulsa 21 — September 14, 2019
Tulsa originally planned to play its opener in Stillwater on Sept. 5, but the game was postponed and rescheduled after Tulsa paused practices to effectively deal with COVID-19 protocols. Now, the Saturday showdown between the in-state rivals is on for the third time in four years.
With makeshift scheduling and sudden cancelations, the 2020 college football season presents unique circumstances for teams. But in a normal season, it would be do or die time for Philip Montgomery and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2016, finishing with records of 2-10, 3-9, and 4-8 in the past three seasons.
Last year, Tulsa wasn’t a bad 4-8 team. It was a talented offensive team which encountered unfortunate luck at the worst possible times. The Golden Hurricane were disastrous kicking woes away from earning six wins and landing bowl eligibility. Those errors included missing two overtime field goals against 10-win SMU and missing a 29-yard chip shot on the final play to knock off AAC champion Memphis. It’s time to move past that and focus on Tulsa’s full potential — the same Tulsa team which led Oklahoma State at halftime, the same Tulsa team which overcame a double-digit deficit to upset UCF, or the same Tulsa which handled an 8-5 Wyoming team last fall.
The beginning of the 2020 season won’t be a breeze as this year’s edition of Oklahoma State — currently ranked No. 11 in the adjusted AP Poll — is supposed to be Mike Gundy’s best squad since at least 2017.
When Oklahoma State has the ball
The Cowboys return the best running back in college football. Chuba Hubbard handily won the rushing crown in 2019 with 2,094 yards and averaged almost 65 yards per game more than any other player in the FBS. Tulsa knows Hubbard’s ability to take over a game better than most programs across the country. Last fall, the unanimous All-American registered 256 yards and three touchdowns (including a 75-yard score on the opening play) on a Golden Hurricane defense which returns four starters this fall.
Oklahoma State has no problem feeding Hubbard 30 times per game, a threshold Gundy’s offense exceeded on four occasions last season. He presents dangerous speed for any defense, and his explosiveness once finding a gap is what allowed him to have a top 20 rushing season of all-time.
If All-American talent at the running back position wasn’t enough, Oklahoma State also presents arguably the best receiving threat in college football. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace suffered a midseason ACL tear which cut his promising 2019 campaign short, but he ranked second in receiving yards as a sophomore in 2018 with 1,491. The former Biletnikoff finalist was on the path to a second-consecutive 1,000-yard season last fall before the devastating injury hit. He runs perfect routes, gets highly physical on contested catches, and averages over 17 yards per reception in his Cowboy career.
One of Tulsa’s four returning starters, cornerback Allie Green IV, will draw an intriguing matchup with Wallace near the sideline. Green is the team’s best coverage corner and contributed four pass breakups and 45 tackles as a junior.
If stopping Hubbard and Wallace isn’t too much for the Tulsa defense, Oklahoma State utilizes a dual-threat quarterback as well. Spencer Sanders is not the typical Mason Rudolph, Brandon Weeden-type pocket quarterback we’ve seen in the Gundy era. Sanders is the first Cowboy quarterback to rush for over 600 yards since 2007. The reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year is back with a year of experience and his top receiving target. He completed 63 percent of his passes for a freshman, throwing 16 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions.
Sanders’ confidence should flourish this season, especially with each of his top three wide receivers returning to the lineup. Dillon Stoner stepped up to become the Cowboys’ top receiver after Wallace was sidelined with the injury and Braydon Johnson excelled as a deep threat with over 21 yards per catch last year.
Tulsa’s defense took a hit this offseason after losing its top two players to the NFL Draft. Defensive end Trevis Gipson was the Golden Hurricane’s most talented pass rusher and Reggie Robinson II excelled as a one-on-one corner, so stepping up to replace those players is of utmost importance. Green is the surefire candidate to fill Robinson’s shoes. But replacing Gipson is trickier as he was responsible for 62 percent of Tulsa’s sacks in 2019. The best pass rusher on the team could become 6’4” defensive end Cullen Wick. The former JUCO prospect notched four tackles against Oklahoma State last season and has six tackles for loss and two sacks to his name in his Tulsa career.
When Tulsa has the ball
Philip Montgomery is gifted with a talented offense this season.
Former Baylor transfer Zach Smith enjoyed his best collegiate season in his first go-around suiting up for Tulsa. The senior quarterback ranked 22nd in the country in passing yards a year ago and finished with his best touchdown-to-interception ratio (19-9) yet. Unlike Sanders, he focuses more on the pocket and doesn’t threaten defenses with the run.
Smith had a solid outing against Oklahoma State last September with 228 passing yards and one touchdown without an interception. His options from last year are similar to the cast he’ll work with this season. Wide receiver Keylon Stokes will be Tulsa’s No. 1 wideout after his 1,000-yard campaign, and rising star Sam Crawford Jr. looks to build on his 777-yard, 5-touchdown season from 2019.
The Golden Hurricane featured a top 30 passing offense a year ago. Montgomery runs a high-tempo, explosive offensive attack which Oklahoma State struggled to contain in the first half in the previous meeting. Smith completed four passes of 25 or greater yards on the Cowboy defense, so he shouldn’t be afraid to attack downfield early in Stillwater this Saturday.
Tulsa’s rushing game is headed by the two-headed backfield of Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II. The Golden Hurricane’s veteran running back depth should improve the rushing offense, which was finished 96th in yards per game in 2019 — a sharp drop from ranking 36th in 2018. The Brooks-Taylor backfield has been an ongoing staple at Tulsa for several years, and both running backs attained the 850 rushing yard mark in 2018. Brooks earned a larger share of the carries last season and managed to surpass 1,000 yards, but both running backs tied for the team leading in rushing touchdowns with six.
Almost all of Oklahoma State’s defense is back from last year, and the Cowboys will send out a pair of accomplished run stoppers from the linebacker position. Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga both wrapped up for more than 100 tackles in 2019 and the duo combined for 22.5 tackles for loss. Ogbongbemiga should draw plenty of eyes from the Tulsa offensive line, as he ranked first on the Cowboys in sacks with 5.0. When looking toward the secondary, the Golden Hurricane should be wary of ballhawk safety Kolby Harvell-Peel. Third on the team in tackles in 2019, Harvey-Peel managed to intercept five passes and break up 13 additional attempts. He’ll challenge Tulsa’s offense in a multitude of ways in both teams’ 2020 opener Saturday.
Oklahoma State has won seven straight in this series, dating back to 1999.
The Big 12 is off to a rocky start in non-conference play after dropping three games to the Sun Belt a week ago. But the 2020 Cowboys are on a higher pedestal as one of three Big 12 titans, along with Oklahoma and Texas. Spencer Sanders should improve as a second-year quarterback and his offense is loaded with the most dominant running back and wide receiver in college football. Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace will both cause problems for the inexperienced Golden Hurricane defense, and both players should have no issue attaining 100+ yards from scrimmage in the opener.
Tulsa’s offense is severely underrated and the Golden Hurricane should reach the end zone several times, but stopping the Cowboys’ juggernaut of an offense is a tough ask in a team’s first game of the season. Oklahoma State lights it up starting in the second quarter and finishes with a three or four touchdown victory in Stillwater.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 49, Tulsa 24