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October 17, 2008

Tulsa serious about pursuit of perfection

TULSA, Okla. An orange with "14-0" painted on it rests on Tulsa coach Todd Graham's desk. Photos of teams raising BCS trophies are in the locker room. And Tulsa's 1945 Orange Bowl trophy is on display in the football offices.

If those indicators of Tulsa's goals are somehow too subtle, Graham won't hesitate to make his aspirations crystal clear: The Golden Hurricane are seeking perfection and the just reward that Graham is confident comes with it.

The aim is an unbeaten record, a Conference USA championship and a BCS bowl appearance, which could lead to a 14-0 record. The national championship game will be played in Miami, which means the fifth BCS game established a few years ago so non-"Big Six" conference teams such as Tulsa could get in the BCS mix is set for the Orange Bowl. Hence, the significance of "14-0" printed on the orange.

"Every non-BCS team that went undefeated got into a BCS bowl," says Graham, a hands-on coach involved in every aspect of his team. "Boise State, Utah and Hawaii got in. We know teams in Conference USA, the Mountain West or the WAC have to be perfect."

Perfection is within reach. Under Graham's leadership, the Golden Hurricane (6-0) is the only Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) team in the nation averaging more than 50 points per game. No team remaining on Tulsa's schedule currently has a winning record, and all rank between 66th and 113th in the nation in scoring defense.

But perfection won't guarantee a lucrative BCS appearance. Caliber of competition, the success of other non-"Big Six" programs and a scheduling decision could work against Tulsa and leave the Golden Hurricane, even if they are unbeaten, bound for a less-prestigious bowl.

Graham, 43, refuses to accept that a team with a 13-0 record could be left out of the BCS party.

"There is no way in my mind that a 13-0 team cannot be in a BCS game," he says. "Only one team since 1947 has gone 14-0 and that was Ohio State (in 2002), so going 13-0 is an unbelievable accomplishment. It's a big-time challenge. There is a reason that it hasn't happened a lot."


Tulsa, which has the second-smallest enrollment among FBS schools, ahead of only Air Force, has a stealth program. No matter what the Golden Hurricane do, they stay under the radar.

Ten FBS teams remain unbeaten, and Tulsa is the only one that is unranked. Four of those ranked unbeaten teams are from outside the "Big Six" conferences (the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and Pac-10); BYU and Utah from the Mountain West, Boise State from the Western Athletic and Ball State from the Mid-American are ranked.

That could be cause for angst, but Graham is a classic "the glass is half-full" kind of guy. In just a few minutes of listening to him, it's also apparent the content of that glass was a triple shot of espresso.

Relentlessly enthusiastic and energetic, he can make compelling arguments about why Tulsa would be deserving of a BCS appearance. Sometimes, though, you can't help but wonder if he truly believes his own argument, especially when he touts Tulsa's strength of schedule.

"If you looked at our schedule before the season, it didn't look easy," he says. "Look at the record Central Florida had last year. They will make a big push at the end of the season. Arkansas is on our schedule. Nobody thought that would be a walk in the park before the season started, and they're definitely not now after they just beat Auburn. We have some quality opponents. New Mexico won nine games and a bowl game last year.

Tulsa is 6-0. Here are the remaining regular-season opponents, their records and how many points they allow per game (national rank is in parentheses).
OpponentAvg. points allowed
UTEP (3-3) 31.5 (103rd)
UCF (2-4) 26.7 (76th)
Arkansas (3-3) 35.3 (112th)
Houston (3-3) 27.0 (78th)
Tulane (2-4) 25.5 (66th)
Marshall (3-3) 27.3 (82nd)

"Any way you want to cut it up and slice it, there is no way you can justify any team 13-0 not being in a BCS game. It's not like we're playing a weak non-conference schedule."

In non-conference play, Tulsa has beaten North Texas, New Mexico and Central Arkansas, a Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) program. In league play, Tulsa has beaten UAB, Rice and SMU. Combined, those six are 8-25, and Tulsa is the only unbeaten team that hasn't faced a "Big Six" opponent.

A non-"Big Six" team that ranks in the top 12 of the BCS standings is guaranteed a BCS bid. But if Utah, BYU, Ball State or Boise State remain unbeaten and, presumably, ahead of the Golden Hurricane in the polls that would further hamper Tulsa's chances.

"If there are multiple non-automatic qualifiers that are undefeated, that could be our problem," Tulsa athletic director Bubba Cunningham says. "I think then strength of schedule could be a deciding factor.

"It's funny. I hear people say we haven't played anybody. Then I hear Arizona's only loss (before falling to Stanford last week) was to a very good New Mexico team. We beat New Mexico."

Tulsa did indeed post a 56-14 blowout victory over New Mexico, which defeated Arizona 36-28. New Mexico also played BYU, losing 21-3.

Tulsa actually has a history of facing demanding schedules. Last season, the Golden Hurricane lost to Oklahoma but beat BYU, which is the Cougars' most recent loss. Tulsa typically has faced at least one team and frequently two from a "Big Six" conference, and will do so again this season when it faces Arkansas on Nov. 1.

But despite last week's 25-22 upset of Auburn, Arkansas is enduring one of its worst seasons in years. This year, a win over the Razorbacks won't carry as much clout as an upset of Texas Tech and Tulsa originally was scheduled to face Texas Tech. Tulsa, though, paid $150,000 to Tech to get out of that game to instead play Arkansas, which offered $700,000 more for the game than Texas Tech did.

Taking the extra cash might end up costing a shot at the millions that come with a BCS appearance, but Cunningham says he didn't think the schedule change would be a big factor.

"You're going to play the schedule you have," he says. "We could beat an SEC school, and we did beat New Mexico. You play the schedule you have and you've got to win them all."

Graham says he supported the decision to schedule Arkansas.

"Everything in that decision that was made by our administration was a positive for our program and our athletic department in every way," Graham says. "That was a big-time opportunity for us and our fans. It's about an hour drive to Fayetteville and it was a great deal for us financially. They're playing in the SEC and they've got a lot better football team than people think."

That can be debated. What cannot be argued is that from here on out, Tulsa will have to make a favorable impression on voters to have any shot at a BCS game.

Winning won't be enough. The Golden Hurricane have to win and earn "style points."

Any way you want to cut it up and slice it, there is no way you can justify any team 13-0 not being in a BCS game.
-Tulsa head coach Todd Graham

"We do think about these things," Graham acknowledges. "We had the No. 1 offense in the country last year and we're on pace to do the same thing. That should be pretty attractive; that's something people ought to look at and see the numbers we put up and the points we score.

"We've got to play to the best of our ability. We've got to go out and be dominant. But I don't know how we could be more dominant than we were in the first five games."

Tulsa's average margin of victory in those games was 31.6 points. The Golden Hurricane rolled up at least 555 yards in every game and exceeded 50 points four times.

"We set our goals so high we expect to score a lot of points," sophomore wide receiver A.J. Whitmore says. "Thirty points is not good for us. We expect 50."

Last week, though, Tulsa had to come from behind for a 37-31 victory over one-win SMU. A key play was a 33-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-21 from a set the Hurricane typically use to pooch-punt.

That close call only reinforced to Graham that Tulsa can reach its lofty goals.

"You're looking at fourth-and-21 and execute that ," he says. "I believe our team is destined for great things. But you've got to seize it. You've got to catch that ball."

First, though, the ball has to come your way.


It's easy to assume Graham's talk of perfect records and BCS bowls is coaching rhetoric used for motivation. But Cunningham doesn't think so.

"I think the one thing that's very evident any time you visit with Todd is that he's passionate about what he does," Cunningham says. "He is a firm, firm goal-setter, and he firmly believes the more you visualize and set goals in front of yourself, then the more often you can attain them. And if you don't make them, you're still successful because you're reaching as high as you can dream."

Considering Graham's background and what he has accomplished, it's understandable that he thinks anything is possible.

Graham's mother had just an eighth-grade education, but she raised five children by herself in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite. Graham was the first in his family to go to college.

He was an NAIA All-America defensive back at East Central Oklahoma. Four years after graduating, he returned as defensive coordinator; in his third season, he helped ECO win the national championship in 1993.

From there, he coached under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, then went to Tulsa as Steve Kragthorpe's defensive coordinator for three seasons.

In 2006, he accepted the coaching position at Rice and guided the Owls to their first bowl in 45 years. When Kragthorpe left for Louisville, Cunningham immediately phoned Graham. Despite having just signed a contract extension at Rice, Graham took the job.

With Tulsa, Graham has built on what Kragthorpe started. Graham hired offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn from Arkansas because, Graham says, they share the same offensive philosophy. That move paid off immediately. Last season, Tulsa was 10-4 and with its no-huddle spread offense became the first team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer, three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard running back.

This season, new starting quarterback David Johnson leads the nation in passing efficiency and touchdown passes. Three receivers have more than 300 yards. Running back Tarrion Adams has 519 rushing yards. Tulsa ranks sixth in the nation in passing offense, seventh in rushing offense and first in total and scoring offense.

Some might consider it ironic that a coach with a defensive background is guiding the most productive offensive team in the nation, but Graham says it shouldn't be.

"I spent 22 years coaching defense," Graham says, "so everything we do on offense are things that I hated to defend."

Graham says Tulsa will throw vertically and outside the hashmarks at least five times in the first half of each game. Opponents know what's coming but they don't know when, and if they're preoccupied with that, Graham says he's more than happy to run the ball.

No doubt athletic directors around the country have noticed Graham's success. And if the Golden Hurricane finish unbeaten, he'll get even more attention.

Graham, who has six children ranging in ages from 6 to 25, says he's content at Tulsa. His son, Bo, is Tulsa's running backs coach. His daughter, Natalie, is a freshman at Tulsa; son Hank will be a freshman next year. Another daughter, Haylee, is a high school junior who plans to attend Tulsa. Graham's children can attend Tulsa for free as long as he is there.

"That's $750,000 in education," Graham says. "That will entice you to stay."

But he acknowledges that if calls come, he'll listen and do "whatever is best for my family."

There also is no doubt his focus is on this season.

An entire wall in Graham's office serves as a screen for watching game tape, which he does incessantly. A queen-sized air mattress covered in a blue comforter sits in the middle of his office. He sleeps there a few times a week.

And, of course, there is the 14-0 orange sitting on the desk.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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