TULSA, Okla. (AP) -This time last year, Todd Graham was coaching Rice to a 7-6 record and its first bowl game in 45 years.
But after only one season with the Owls, Graham took the head coaching job at Tulsa, where he had previously worked as defensive coordinator.
His quick departure incensed Rice supporters.
Some of those wounds might still be healing on Saturday, when Graham's Golden Hurricane (8-3, 5-2 Conference USA) travels to Rice (3-8, 3-4) to take on his former squad in their final regular-season game. Tulsa is riding a four-game win streak after beating Army last week, 49-39.
``We've got to finish the race, and it's not going to be an easy deal,'' Graham said this week. ``It's going to be a big challenge in probably a pretty adverse setting.''
Graham said he accepts the ridicule that comes with leaving a program after only a year, but described some of what was said and written about his Jan. 12 hiring at Tulsa as ``malicious.''
``I was upset about some of the things that were leaked I think to the media that were outright lies,'' Graham said. ``You know, how much money, that I was making $1.1 million.
``Like I said before, I signed the wrong contract if that's the case,'' he said.
Last season, Graham's Rice team beat Tulsa 41-38 in double overtime with Graham at the helm. Before that, Tulsa won the previous three meetings.
A win for Tulsa clinches the Conference USA West Division title and secures a trip to play in next week's conference championship game against either Central Florida or East Carolina.
If Tulsa loses, Houston (7-4, 6-2) will win the division.
``We have a goal of winning 11 games for the first time in school history; we got a chance to do that hopefully,'' Graham said. ``Heck, this is single elimination, you got to win to go to the next one.''
Tulsa comes into Saturday's game as the nation's leader in total offense averaging more than 544 yards per game, and Graham said his team is playing its best football right now.
``We've talked all year about one week of football and it's not this week, it's next week,'' said senior quarterback Paul Smith, who ranks third in the nation in passer rating (162.6) and total offense (364.5 ypg). ``And if we don't win this week, we don't get to play next week.
``We definitely knew that it might come down to this, but we've said as a team we want to be conference champs since day one,'' Smith said.
Rice will be celebrating its senior day, and there's no bowl game in the future for the Owls this season.
``I think people want to win because we're Rice Owls. I don't think people want to win this one just because we're playing Todd Graham,'' Rice coach David Bailiff said. ``We've gone into every football win expecting to win. So should we expect to win? Sure, that's how you have to do it.
``I think that we've got some very intelligent young men on this team that know what they have to do to perform at their best. I don't think this will be Todd Graham vs. David Bailiff. This will be Rice vs. Tulsa.''
Graham said he's thankful for the experience he had at Rice because it prepared him to be a better coach and that when he left, none of the school's administrators had a negative thing to say to him.
``I gave those kids and that program everything I had,'' he said. ``I think I left it better than I found it.''
But how about any lingering bitterness between the teams?
``Coach Graham isn't playing, and (Rice's) head coach isn't playing, so everybody can say what they say,'' Smith said. ``If our team goes out and executes the way we should, we'll be fine.''

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