On paper, Tulsa should have its best team in years when the 2011 season begins. But the Golden Hurricane also face what could be the most difficult nonconference schedule in the nation -- a difficult challenge the team is trying to embrace.
Tulsa opens the season at Oklahoma on Sept. 3 against a team many are predicting as preseason No. 1. After a conference game at Tulane, Tulsa hosts Oklahoma State on Sept. 17, then travels to Boise State on Sept. 24. The Cowboys and Broncos are also expected to be top-10 teams.
The Golden Hurricane finished last season ranked in the Top 25 and return 19 starters, so they should be able to hold their own. But can they survive under the weight of such a grueling schedule, one made in large part because of the large guarantee paydays involved?
"We have a veteran ballclub that’s been in hostile environments and played a tough schedule before," coach Bill Blankenship said. "These are guys that have been successful at Notre Dame and at Houston in Hawaii, places on the road where it’s not easy to win, so I don’t think these are guys that will blink. I think we’ve got to matchup talent wise and all those other things, but in terms of having the self confidence, that’s what this group brings to the table. There’s no shortcut to experience."
Tulsa began last season 4-3, including an embarrassing 65-28 loss to Oklahoma State. But a 28-27 win over Notre Dame began building major momentum, and the team closed the season with seven straight wins. That loss to the Cowboys is one that no doubt is serving as motivation. Tulsa was a radically different team at the end of the year than it was when it lost that game.
The difficulty of the schedule is serving as motivation as well.
"We want to be like TCU and Boise State," quarterback G.J. Kinne said. "We want to be there like them, and we have the schedule to do it. We win those games and win our conference and go undefeated in conference, we'll definitely be there. In the back of your mind, you win those games you know you have a chance to play for a BCS game."
The conference schedule is also difficult. Tulsa has only five days between a home game against division rival SMU and a road game at UCF on a Thursday night. But on the bright side, the Golden Hurricane play SMU and Houston at home, the two teams it is expected to contend with in C-USA West.
"We recognize the challenge that we’re going to be faced, with but I like the fact that I’m getting to go through this schedule with guys who have played," Blankenship said. "It would be murder’s row if this was a new, young ballclub, but the fact that we’ve been in the battles -- its’ still going to be an uphill fight but it’s not anything we’re going to blink at."
As for how this schedule might affect one of the most talented teams the school has had, Blankenship said, "There is some pressure that goes with it, but to me that’s the fun part of this game. You want to be in a situation where you have an opportunity to excel. The thing our guys know is the opportunity is there for them, so it’s not going to be something where we sit around and say if we had this schedule. We get to go play it."