The Armed Forces Bowl has finally arrived and with a victory tomorrow, the Utes can win their 6th straight bowl game, a mark that ranks only second to Boston College's current 6 game winning streak. Tulsa, 8-4 on the season, can finish 9-4 for the second consecutive year with a win over Utah. Tomorrow's bowl game marks only the fourth time the two will meet, with Tulsa holding a 2-1 advantage and last beating the Utes in 1997.
Both Tulsa and Utah have struggled a bit this season and finished below typical expectations. Many felt Tulsa would repeat as conference champions, but instead they faltered in the middle of their conference schedule and did not even win their division. Utah, picked by Fox Sports to bust the BCS, struggled through a majority of the season before finishing the final month strong. However Utah's struggles definitely echo louder than that of Tulsa's, who's in their best run under head coach Steve Kragthorpe in decades. In fact, Tulsa has been so successful the 4 seasons Kragthorpe has been there that his name is often tossed out for bigger vacant coaching positions in BCS conferences. Most notably Alabama, who have yet to hire a coach to replace the fired Mike Shula. As it looks now though, Kragthorpe will return to Tulsa for a fifth season.
The Golden Hurricanes are an offensive team with a decent enough defense to give teams fits. Tulsa's offense is led by quarterback junior Paul Smith, who's having his best season of his career with the Golden Hurricanes. Smith has a completion rate of 66% on the season and has thrown for 15 touchdowns on the season. On the season he's completed 213 passes on 323 attempts.
Balancing out Tulsa's passing offense is their running game, controlled mostly by junior Courtney Tennial. Tennial has rushed for 792 yards on the season and averages 4.8 yards per carry, while scoring 14 touchdowns on the season. Tulsa's rushing offense ranks 38th in the NCAA, while their passing offense is an impressive 22nd.
Defensively Tulsa is pretty solid. They only gives up 20 PPG and have kept most offenses in check this season. The most points they gave up this season was 49 against BYU -- an offense Utah played defensively sound against to end the season.
Utah's offense has been very fickle this entire season. In some games they've looked damn near unstoppable and in other games they've completely been dominated against. Utah's success, as always, will rely on whether or not Brett Ratliff has the ability to get a pass off without an interception. Since a terrible performance against Wyoming in October, Ratliff has been pretty consistent and good enough in leading the Utes to victory. The Utes' passing offense ranks 44th in the NCAA, while their rushing offense -- mostly anemic this season -- ranks 56th. That higher ranking mostly comes from the fact Utah still runs a spread option, which puts Ratliff in position to run more than a typical pro-style quarterback.
On the defensive end, the Utes have been adequate enough to win most of their games. It has been the Utes' offense that often put them in bad situations, much like in the Boise State game, and if the Utes' offense can play without turning the ball over, the defense should perform well enough to win. A big concern for Utah's defense will be Tulsa's passing offense. If Smith carves up Utah's secondary and Ratliff can't match him score for score (something he did well in against BYU), the Utes will struggle. However the Utes' running defense is strong enough that I believe it will stuff Tennial to the point where they won't get much on the ground. Utah's defensive line shut down Curtis Brown in the BYU game and if it weren't for John Beck's great play, Utah would have walked away with a victory. I don't think Paul Smith is as good of a quarterback as John Beck is, so I don't expect that type of performance.
Utah's chances of victory come down to whether or not they can make the stops and force Tulsa into a one-dimensional game plan on the offensive side of the ball. I expect Smith to do fairly well through the air, but outside of that I think their offense will stagnate as they won't be able to get anything on the ground. If Utah's going to win, they need to neutralize Smith and force him into throwing some bad passes. If Utah can shut down the passing game enough that it doesn't dominate Tulsa's offensive game plan and they are forced to try and run, the Utes should have no problem keeping Tulsa out of the end zone.
Utah's defense has stepped it up in bowl games, holding their past three opponents to 10 (Georgia Tech), 7 (Pittsburgh) and 0 (Southern Miss). They also completely shut down Carson Palmer and a high explosive USC offense in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl. With history, and more importantly Whittingham -- the architect of that Utah defense -- on the Utah's side, I expect a comfortable margin of victory. With that said, I would not be surprised if Tulsa succeeded in moving the ball and if that's the case, I expect a game much like the Utah-BYU game. Yet I'm optimistic, so I'm going to predict the Utes win 31-14. They finish the season 8-5, win their 6th straight bowl game and end the 2006 season on a high note.