Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery won’t downplay what Saturday’s game against No. 19 SMU could do for his team.
With a win, the Golden Hurricane (3-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) would be positioned to make a run at a berth in the conference championship game and likely would crack the AP Top 25.
“I think it puts us in the drivers’ seat,” Montgomery said. “We definitely control where we’re headed and where we’re going. Another Top 25-type win opens a lot of different doors for you.”
SMU (7-1, 4-1) can’t afford to stumble, with Tulsa and Cincinnati entering the weekend unbeaten in league play.
Tulsa’s only loss this season was a close one against now No. 14 Oklahoma State. The Golden Hurricane got on the nation’s radar when they beat then-No. 11 Central Florida last month to end the Knights’ 21-game home win streak.
“What stands out to me is that they play really hard and they play really tough,” SMU coach Sonny Dykes said. “The word that comes up to me when you see them play is gritty.”
Gritty might not be enough on Saturday. SMU quarterback Shane Buechele leads the nation with 2.581 yards passing, and he’s ninth in yards passing per game.
“Shane is playing lights out,” Montgomery said. “He’s kind of the catalyst to it all. I mean his play -- he’s calm in the pocket. He uses his feet. He gets out of the pocket and makes plays that way, he’s pushing the ball down the field. One of the best deep throwers that I’ve seen in a really long time in terms of placement, accuracy, all of those things.”
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins has been named AAC Defensive Player of the Week twice, and he’s only played four games. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior had 10 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss, two pass breakups against Central Florida and had an interception return for a touchdown and a forced fumble against South Florida.
“You look at their linebacker play -- 23 I think is probably as good a linebacker as there is in college football,” Dykes said. “There’s just nobody that’s his size and that strength who runs that well, has that kind of instincts and is that productive.”
The teams have split their past four matchups and each has won an overtime game. Neither has won by more than six points during that stretch. Last year, SMU won 43-37 in three overtimes.
“It’s just been that game,” Montgomery said. “It’s been one of those that it always stands out to you, one that we always look forward to. You know it’s going to be physical. You know it’s going to be exciting. It seems to never let you down in that sense.”
SMU freshman running back Ulysses Bentley IV is one of the nation’s most productive running backs. He ranks fifth nationally with 774 yards rushing and is tied for fifth nationally with 10 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s so explosive,” Montgomery said. “You may have the hole actually covered up, and then all of a sudden he reverses field and bounces something outside and he’s making a big play.”
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Four SMU players have at least 25 catches. Rashee Rice has 39 catches for 580 yards and five touchdowns. Tyler Page has 32 grabs for 383 yards and two scores. Tight end Kylen Granson has 30 catches for 485 yards and three touchdowns and Danny Gray has 25 catches for 355 yards and four scores.
This is just the second home game of the season for Tulsa. The first came on Oct. 30 against East Carolina The Oklahoma State game was pushed back a week because Tulsa was short-handed. The Golden Hurricane were supposed to play Arkansas State on Sept. 26, but the Red Wolves couldn’t put a two-deep lineup together. Navy’s cases caused last Saturday’s scheduled game to be postponed.
The game against Cincinnati has been moved twice -- once for Cincinnati’s cases and once for television. The Arkansas State and Navy games have not been rescheduled.
“The games that we’ve been able to play — we’ve done a decent job in those,” Montgomery said. “Just haven’t played enough of them. Trying to figure out exactly where our team is.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.