- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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This year Tulsa has decided to introduce a dog ambassador for games and among the most important of Goldie the golden retriever’s tasks will be actually retrieving the kickoff tee after kickoffs -- reason enough to tune in for at least one game.
TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE
Coach: Bill Blankenship (19-8, 19-8 at Tulsa)
2012 record: 11-3 (7-1 Conference USA)
Key losses: LB DeAundre Brown, C Trent Dupy, OG Brian DeShane, OT Jared Grigg, and the entire defensive line -- DE Jared St. John, DT Daeshon Bufford, DT Derrick Jackson and DE Cory Dorris
Newcomer to watch: CB Will Barrow. Tulsa lost three top guys in its secondary (including both corners) and Barrow comes in as the Golden Hurricane’s top defensive back in the 2013 class. This one-time Texas Tech commit has great instincts for the ball and is a player who could step in and contribute immediately.
Biggest games in 2013: at Oklahoma (Sept. 14), vs. Rice (Oct. 5), at East Carolina (Nov. 9), vs. Marshall (Nov. 16)
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Tulsa get the same kind of defensive pressure while attempting a wholesale change of its D-line? Last season, the Golden Hurricane defensive line could regularly get to opposing quarterbacks without needing to blitz. This freed up its linebackers and secondary to make plays, specifically Brown, who accounted for 125 tackles during his senior campaign.
The starting D-line accounted for 144 tackles (including 41.5 for losses), 26 sacks and four forced fumbles. But with those four players gone, the chances that the D-line can build that kind of chemistry and accomplish the same amount for the defense just seems farfetched.
Forecast: A lot of production -- both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball -- are gone and fresh faces will be replacing those. And with the number of replacements that Blankenship needs to make, it seems doubtful that this year’s Golden Hurricanes will be the same as last season.
The defense, which ranked in the top 25 nationally in several categories -- tackles for a loss (fifth), red zone defense (fifth), sacks (third), total defense (25th), rushing defense (16th) -- just won’t be the same.
Even with that kind of changeover, though, another run at the Conference USA title isn’t out of the question completely for the Golden Hurricane.
Green returns for his senior season. In 2012 he threw for 17 touchdowns and more than 2,500 yards. Like much of the team, his receivers will be new but the run game (which actually does return some experience) will open up the passing game for Tulsa.
And Green isn’t the only bright spot -- their kickoff return game could be freakishly good. Tulsa finished the season last year as the third best return team in the nation with an average of 27 yards per return. Place kicker Daniel Schwarz also returns. He was 12-of-18 on field goals last season and 52-of-59 on extra points made. Another year of practice and maturity should help both of those numbers go up.
So while there are several question marks surrounding this transitioning team, it’s not all bad news. In its final year in Conference USA, Tulsa could definitely make a run for the title. Or they could end up being nowhere close. That’s the joy of a young team and Blankenship gets to try and make it work.