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Tulsa-UCF battle to decide unlikely C-USA champ

Advance ticket sales of 50,000-plus bode well for UCF attendance record

O'Leary resume touts new entry: turnaround season
Fortuitous Tulsa primed for title game

AP Sports Writer

ORLANDO, FL — For either Central Florida or Tulsa, a turnaround is about to become complete.

At UCF, George O'Leary's team has overcome a 17-game losing streak, one that started in 2003 and became the nation's longest before ending in the third game this year.

When Steve Kragthorpe took over at Tulsa three seasons ago, he inherited a program that lost 21 of its previous 23 games.

Yet on Saturday, when Conference USA holds its first title game at the Citrus Bowl (noon, ESPN), one will become an unlikely champion.

"Nobody expected Central Florida and Tulsa to be playing in the conference championship game," Kragthorpe said. "I think if anybody had placed a milkshake wager on it, somebody would be getting pretty fat right now."

Tulsa was picked fourth in the C-USA West division. UCF, which was coming off an 0-11 debut season for O'Leary, was tabbed for last in the East.

So much for low expectations. Regardless of the outcome, both teams will play in a bowl game, with the winner probably headed to the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31. It'll be UCF's first bowl appearance; Tulsa has played in only one since 1991.

"At the beginning, our goal was the bowl," said UCF linebacker James Cook. "But we always had the vision that we could have a chance to play for a conference championship. It ended up happening like that. We had a couple breaks go our way, and we won a couple close games. Now we're here."

Tulsa (7-4, 6-2) took a more difficult road to Orlando — literally. The team's flight from Oklahoma was delayed for several hours because of mechanical problems on Friday, forcing the Golden Hurricane to make their final preparations at home instead of getting a first look at the Citrus Bowl.

"It actually works out like I wanted it to," Kragthorpe said from Tulsa on Friday. "The only reason we were coming in early was to be there for the media conference. ... We prefer to stay here on Fridays and do our whole routine here in terms of our meeting and our walkthrough. We can be a little more involved."

Tulsa has won five of its last six games, those wins coming by an average of 20 points. A loss to Texas-El Paso seemed to derail Tulsa's chances of playing for a title, but the Miners were beaten by Southern Methodist last weekend — giving the Golden Hurricane the division title.

"It was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, to win the conference championship," said Tulsa's Garrett Mills, whose 75 catches lead all Division I-A tight ends. "After the UTEP game, we felt like that might be pushed aside a little bit. Luckily we are in a position to do that again."

UCF (8-3, 7-1) feels pretty lucky, too. When the Golden Knights opened the year with losses to South Carolina and South Florida, some players confessed to having 'here-we-go-again' concerns.

Alas, they were unfounded. UCF beat Marshall to snap the 17-game losing streak and start a run of eight wins in nine games. And the Golden Knights got here the hard way; they're one of only four Division I-A teams who played no more than four home regular-season games this year. Plus, they have overcome deficits to win each of their last five games.

"I was never concerned about the team and if we were going to win. I knew that was going to happen sooner or later," O'Leary said. "I was more concerned with the fan base. Are they going to stay with us or are they just front-runners? And you can see the fan base is starting to grow."

In less than a year, UCF — led by Steven Moffett's 2,434 passing yards and 18 touchdowns — has gone from national laughingstock to the toast of the town.

The Golden Knights, who've never drawn more than 50,220 for a home game, should easily exceed that Saturday. Advance ticket sales are already ahead of that number.

"It's definitely surreal," said UCF defensive end Paul Carrington.

02/23/07 10:43 AM

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