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TU Football: Five Burning Questions For 2014 Season

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It's so close you can taste it.

The Golden Hurricane opens the season one week from today against Tulane as TU begin its campaign for a rebound season. After a disappointing 3-9 campaign in 2013, Tulsa will try for a return to the postseason in 2014.

As TU gets set to take the field as a member of the American Athletic Conference, let's take a look at five burning questions that Tulsa will need to answer this season.

5. Can Bill Blankenship right the ship?

Coaching an FBS football program comes with a lot of positives – but job security isn't one of them. Bill Blankenship was on top of the world in 2012 after his Golden Hurricane won the Conference USA championship and then defeated Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl, but those days seem like a distant memory.

Blankenship took heavy criticism during Tulsa's disappointing 2013 season after the Hurricane dropped nine contests, seven of which were by double digits. The former Union High coach fell from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in just 12 months.

Many pundits are picking Tulsa to finish dead last in the AAC and the Hurricane is out to prove those folks wrong. It starts at the top, where Blankenship must lead this group back to bowl game or start to face even more pressure.

4. Who will replace Captain Cane?

No, I'm not referring to the Tulsa mascot. I'm talking about Mr. Everything, Trey Watts. Watts finished his TU career No. 3 on the school's all-time rushing list with 3,515 yards while also hauling in more than 1,100 yards through the air.

In addition to being a featured back and a secondary receiving option, Watts served as the Hurricane's primary punt and kick return threat, dashing for more than 1,500 return yards and three touchdowns.

It's a fair statement to say that Watts is one of the top five players in Tulsa football history. He's No. 2 on the all-time yards-from-scrimmage list with 4,667 yards, behind only Tarrion Adams – it won't be easy to find a replacement.

We'll talk more about the TU running game later on, but replacing Watts goes way beyond filling the box score. He was a guy that the other team had to game-plan for. He was a guy who others could look to for leadership.

Now begins the search for a new Trey Watts.

3. How will Tulsa handle a new conference?

TU was the preseason favorite to repeat as Conference USA champs prior to the beginning of last season – and for good reason. C-USA had been gutted and a majority of the quality teams had already departed to the AAC. But you know the rest of the story, and if TU couldn't handle a beaten-down C-USA slate, it's hard to see them navigating the significantly more difficult American.

Have you ever dreaded going to a party because you wouldn't know anyone there? Well, Tulsa's definitely not gonna have that problem. In what basically looks like Conference USA 2.0, Tulsa will meet plenty of familiar opponents. Houston, SMU, ECU, UCF, Tulane and Memphis will all be there.

The only difference will be the quality of these opponents. The AAC has quickly developed into the premier mid-major conference in the country and with that comes added pressure.

2. Who's gonna run the ball?

Watts wasn't Tulsa's only major loss in the backfield. Ja'Terian Douglas was often overshadowed by Watts and Alex Singleton, but his numbers don't lie. Douglas finished his TU career at No. 7 on TU's all-time rushing list with 2,533 yards and 16 touchdowns. Combined with Watts, that's more than 6,000 career rushing yards that need replacing.

Holdovers Zack Langer and James Flanders will likely compete for right to begin filling those shoes, but that's not exactly an exciting proposition for TU fans. Langer had just 18 carries for 58 yards last season, while Flanders carried twice for five yards. The two combined for just one catch for six yards.

But as Blankenship has proven in the past, he loves the use of multiple backs. Another guy that will likely join that mix is transfer Tavarreon Dickerson.

Dickerson posted big numbers in limited touches last season at Trinity Valley Community College. He dashed for 555 yards on only 65 carries for an 8.5 average per, showing exceptional big-play ability. If Dickerson can bring that same explosiveness against FBS-caliber defenses, he'll have a chance to demand heavy carries.

Incoming freshman Ramadi Warren is the Golden Hurricane's other option. Warren is a three-star recruit who appears to be ready to step in. Somewhere among Langer, Flanders, Dickerson and Warren, TU should find someone(s) who can shoulder the load.

1. Is Dane Evans the answer at QB?

It sounds cliché to place the fate of a football team solely on the performance of the quarterback, but that might truly be the case here.

TU should have a solid offensive line and an above-average receiving corps, but with the run game being an unknown commodity, it will be that much more important to find a consistent air attack. Evans struggled throughout much of last season, completing just 43.1 percent of his passes for 898 yards and 10 interceptions. Evans tossed just four touchdowns in 195 pass attempts.

But it's important to remember that Evans was a freshman, and it takes time for most guys to develop. Blankenship is certainly high on Evans' offseason development.

"Dane has really made this his team as far as the offense is concerned, Blankenship said. “He has been a really good leader. He doesn't act like he's achieved anything yet. He's working every day, he's listening, he's being coachable and he has really improved his fundamentals, which is very important in the heat of the battle. I've been very pleased with his poise and his ability to put a little touch on the ball which is something he hadn't done in the past.”

If Evans turns into a reliable threat, Tulsa could realistically chase eight or nine wins. If he plays like he did last year, another 3-9 campaign isn't farfetched.

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