At the end of August, at the beginning of September, at the end of September, at the beginning of October, the feeling never wavered: Tulsa was not going to be a factor in the American Athletic Conference race.
This wasn’t — and isn’t now — a commentary on the Golden Hurricane. This was a reflection of Houston’s then-unquestioned supremacy in the division and the conference. The Cougars rolled past Oklahoma. They struggled for 50 minutes at Cincinnati but dominated the last 10. they crushed Connecticut on a Thursday night. Tom Herman, the “it” coach in college football, offered every indication that his team was going to make a run at the College Football Playoff and lead the way in the charge for, at worst, the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid.
Then, on October 8, everything began to change in the AAC.
An American uprising occurred when Navy ambushed Houston in Annapolis, uncorking 46 points against the Cougars. Navy might not have established itself as the favorite in the AAC West, but it certainly acquired pole position and made itself the gravitational center of the divisional chase.
Houston couldn’t beat Navy. Two weeks later, Memphis couldn’t sink the Midshipmen. If it’s crazy that Temple now controls its fate in the AAC East, it’s even wilder that at the end of October, Tulsa is the one non-Navy team with a direct path to the West title in The American.
Temple versus Tulsa for the AAC title on December 3? It really could happen, but the Golden Hurricane have to win this Saturday night in Memphis in order to gain a legitimate chance heading into November.
It’s not a complicated equation: Navy owns head-to-head tiebreakers over Memphis and Houston, but Tulsa hasn’t played the Midshipmen. A win over Memphis in Week 9 and then over East Carolina at home in Week 10 (which is very likely) would enable Tulsa-Navy on November 12 to be a battle for the West lead. If Tulsa fails to beat Memphis, it would still be in the race, but the Golden Hurricane would have to run the table in November and get help from at least one source in order to walk away with a division crown.
The thirst for a division and conference title is a motivational fuel tank in itself, but Tulsa enters the Liberty Bowl stadium powered by that primal source of passionate intensity: anger.
The Golden Hurricane, tied with Houston late in their AAC contest on October 15, committed a turnover. Quarterback Dane Evans suffered a strip-sack-and-score nightmare, enabling Houston to take a seven-point lead. Evans resolutely marched his team down to the Cougar 1 in the final seconds, in search of a touchdown and — who knows? — a possible game-winning two-point conversion attempt. However, on a rollout pass, his intended receiver — Jesse Brubaker — didn’t run the route into the end zone. He was tackled at the 1 in such a way that he wasn’t able to reach the ball to the plane of the goal line; Houston defenders locked up his hands so that Brubaker couldn’t stretch them. Brubaker was tackled in bounds, and the clock expired.
Tulsa suffered a triple-whammy of frustration in Houston:
1) It occupied a winning position, only to surrender a defensive touchdown.
2) A pass catcher didn’t run his route deep enough to create the tying (or possibly winning, with a successful two-point try) score.
3) For all of Tulsa’s own failures, the officials plainly messed up in a moment of great consequence, depriving the Golden Hurricane of another play.
It’s a miserable feeling for any competitor: getting screwed, but knowing that if a few things had been done better, the refs would not have been in position to mess up.
Tulsa will stride into Memphis intent not just on winning, but on proving that it is able to transcend difficult circumstances and play well enough that a bad break late in the game won’t matter.
This is a divisional game freighted with opportunity for Tulsa, but it’s also a very personal proving ground for each coach and player.
Will the Hurricane carve out the Golden path which lies in front of them? They get a chance to shape their destiny this Saturday.