What happened at Raymond James Stadium on Friday night was no fluke, no overachievement.
The University of Tulsa was head and shoulders better than an American Athletic Conference opponent, something that has rarely happened since the 10-win season in 2016.
Dominating last-place South Florida 42-13 was the latest sign the Hurricane has turned a corner, going from a consistently beatable team in the conference to a potential contender. After a brutal league stretch that included 15 losses in 18 games, TU has prevailed in four of its past five conference games dating to last season.
“This is an extremely tough league and every week’s a battle,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “You can’t take any of them for granted.”
With a 2-0 start to league play for the first time since 2012, TU is favored in ESPN’s Football Power Index to win each of its remaining six games, a slate that includes fellow conference unbeatens Cincinnati and Houston plus one-loss SMU.
Friday night showed how far the Hurricane has come since being on the receiving end of similar setbacks as recently as last season. USF was left reeling, with one of its prominent players heading to the locker room during the game because of a sideline dispute.
“They (TU) have a really good football team,” first-year coach Jeff Scott said. “We knew that coming in and they played very well tonight.”
The performance was especially impressive considering a 20-day layoff between games. The Hurricane also was without four defensive starters for most of the game, for apparent COVID-19 and injury reasons along with a first-quarter ejection on a targeting call.
That didn’t stop TU from putting together a complete outing that included three takeaways and eight tackles for lost yardage in addition to a balanced offensive attack that produced 462 yards.
“We knew things like this (missing starters) could happen throughout the season,” Montgomery said. “We told our guys, ‘You’ve got to prepare yourself each and every week because you never know when that opportunity’s going to come and when you have it, seize it and make the most of it.’
“I thought we had some guys really step up tonight and make some big plays in some big situations. I’m just really, really proud of them.”
After another nationally televised victory, TU is on the verge of being ranked for the first time in a decade. And perhaps more importantly, the Hurricane is set to play a home game for the first time in 342 days, hosting East Carolina at 8 p.m. Friday.
“I know our guys will be excited to play at home,” Montgomery said. “You feel like you’re on another short week because of the Friday game, so we’ll get to enjoy (this win) for almost 24 hours and then it’s getting ready for East Carolina, who we know is a very talented team, and we’ve got to be prepared to play.”