While often overshadowed in the Sooner State by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa proved to be one of the nation's best stories in 2003.
Former Buffalo Bills assistant Steve Kragthorpe, in his first season as a head coach on any level, guided a Golden Hurricane program coming off back-to-back one-win seasons to an 8-5 record and a trip to the Humanitarian Bowl, the school's first bowl appearance since '91. The seven-win improvement marked the biggest turnaround in Division I-A last season.
"I don't think Hollywood could have written a better ending, in terms of making the progress that we made," the 38-year-old Kragthorpe said. "However, in no way, shape or form are we satisfied with where we're at."
With 17 starters returning from a team that tied for second in the WAC, Tulsa is now a legitimate threat to win its first league title. Unlike last year, however, the Golden Hurricane won't be able to sneak up on their opponents.
"The element of surprise is gone. We're not going to be able to play that card anymore," Kragthorpe said. "But I think we've garnered some respect from people in the WAC. Now we're going to have to live up to that billing."
OffenseIt's easy to see the impact that Kragthorpe had on Tulsa in his first season, especially on offense. The former quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills and offensive coordinator at Texas A&M helped a unit that had struggled in 2002 rank among the nation's top 30 teams in both scoring and rushing.
That offense returns eight starters, including talented senior quarterback James Kilian, a second-team All-WAC selection in '03 (his first year as the starter). But Kragthorpe must find adequate replacements for his leading rusher (Eric Richardson), his top wide receiver (Romby Bryant) and his best offensive lineman (Austin Chadwick) if the team is to maintain its success.
At running back, Uril Parrish hopes to make a successful return from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the final four games of '03 and all contact drills during spring practice. Up until the injury, he led the team with 537 rushing yards.
Tulsa has two of the nation's best tight ends in Lombardi Award candidate Garrett Mills and veteran senior Caleb Blankenship, but needs Montiese Culton, Jermaine Landrum and junior college transfer Ashlan Davis to step up as big-play threats on the outside.
Four starters return on an improving offensive line, but Kragthorpe would like to have more depth there.
DefenseDefensive coordinator Todd Graham spent most of spring practice trying to improve a run defense that allowed Georgia Tech's P.J. Daniels to rush for 307 yards and four scores in the Yellow Jackets' 52-10 win over the Golden Hurricane in the Humanitarian Bowl.
The return of senior Josh Walker and the arrival of four newcomers, including three who weigh 300 pounds or more, should help the line do a better job of plugging the gaps for a playmaking group of defensive backs and linebackers.
Tulsa's secondary hsould be loaded, with leading tackler Kedrick Alexander and interception leader Oliver Fletcher among five starters returning. However, Alexander's availability for the fall is in doubt. He was suspended indefinitely in the spring after being arrested for burglary.
Lombardi Award candidate Nick Bunting, a first-team All-WAC performer and freshman All-American last season, leads the linebackers. Senior Michael LeDet also returns to his starting spot on the outside.
SpecialistsTulsa appears to be in decent shape with the return of punter Chris Kindred and steady placekicker Brad DeVault. Kindred started the first five games as a true freshman. The Golden Hurricane recruited Morgan Guidry to be the new deep snapper, while Landrum has proven to be one of the WAC's top punt returners.
Final AnalysisKragthorpe certainly set the bar high in his inaugural season as a head coach. Now, the challenge is raising that bar yet another notch, which won't be easy. Five of Tulsa's first six games are against teams that played in bowl games last year, including the Big 12's Kansas and Oklahoma State.