It's less than 48 hours until Tulsa kicks off against UCF for the Conference USA championship.
We continue our weeklong coverage today with the five keys to a Golden Hurricane championship. The following five factors will make or break the Hurricane's chances as TU looks for its first conference title since its inaugural season in 2005.
1. Finish drives with points—any points
To be clear, I don't mean TU needs to score on every single drive. That's unrealistic under any circumstances, especially against a strong UCF defense. It's the drives that Tulsa takes into UCF territory and scoring position that will be the key on Saturday. The Hurricane must avoid empty possessions and maximize its scoring opportunities. Leaving points on the field might not be a killer against teams like Tulane or UAB, but it will be against the Knights.
Last week against SMU, Tulsa had four drives inside the Mustangs' 25 yard line that totaled zero points and ended up losing by just eight. Simply a field goal on three of those drives and TU wins.
That wasn't a problem in Tulsa's first meeting with the Knights, where TU cashed in its first three drives inside the 25, only failing on its fourth trip due to a blocked field goal.
Whether it's punching it in the end zone from two yards out, or connecting on a 40-yard field goal, TU must continue to add points and in turn add pressure to the UCF offense.
2. Cody Green
For all the criticism Green has received this year, he's been pretty darn good most of the time. In fact, he's thrown for three touchdowns in each of his past two games while totaling 665 yards and just two interceptions. They are the first two games this season in which Green tossed three touchdowns.
Green's problem has been simple decision making. There's at least one instance in every game, usually more than one, that Green gets pressured and throws one into heavy traffic. Some have been picked, but an exceptional amount have simply deflected off a defender's hands and fallen innocently to the turf. He must play with focus and realize it's okay to throw the ball away.
Green was also a member of the 2010 Nebraska squad that played OU in the Big 12 championship game, so this won't be his first time in a big-time atmosphere.
He's shown the ability to make big-time throws and lead the Hurricane down the field on crucial drives. TU must hope he brings his ‘A' game Saturday.
3. Win the turnover battle
Despite Tulsa's tremendous defensive pressure in round one of this matchup, the Hurricane couldn't force the Knights into a turnover. TU coughed it up twice, once on Green's terrible deep ball and the other on a Ja'Terian Douglas fumble. Tulsa pulled the win out despite losing the turnover battle by two (plus missing a field goal and extra point) so you might ask why this is so important.
It's important because Tulsa has the talent to pull away from UCF if it plays a clean game. Just imagine the final score of the previous meeting if the turnover difference was the other way around—we would have been talking about a blowout in favor of the Hurricane.
TU has forced opponents into plenty of turnovers this season, but not once in its past two games. Saturday's the perfect time to get back to that.
4. Bill Blankenship and staff
There's no question in my mind that Bill Blankenship is the right coach for TU. He's the perfect fit for the program and has done a terrific job since taking over, but as is the case in any championship scenario, Saturday will different for him just like it will be for his players.
Blankenship does have one big advantage though: championship game experience. Yes, it came at the high school level, but coach Blank's seven trips to the Oklahoma Class 6A state championship as the head coach of Tulsa Union shouldn't be taken lightly. He's had the experience of learning how to and how not to prepare a team for a do-or-die scenario, and that knowledge will help him prepare this Golden Hurricane squad for Saturday.
As important as his pregame preparation is, his in-game decision making will also be key. For instance, how will he manage TU's shaky kicking game? Will he elect to go for it on fourth downs or give the struggling Daniel Schwarz an opportunity to come through? Or take the play-calling as another example. TU's run game is one of the strongest in the country and the Hurricane is 9-0 when the TU coaches call for more run plays than pass plays, while 0-3 when it's the other way around. The way Blankenship and his staff manage the game will be crucial.
5. The Chapman Stadium crowd
TU has averaged just over 20,000 people per game this season, filling up Chapman Stadium at about a 68 percent clip. Not bad, but Saturday is an opportunity to make a big difference. A packed house and a rowdy crowd could be a large motivating factor for the Golden Hurricane players. It's a championship game worthy of a championship crowd.