In what could steal the college football show on opening weekend, the
No. 15 Houston Cougars square off against the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners at NRG Stadium in Houston, in the Advocare Texas Kickoff. This game is sold out, and comes with much fanfare and expectations for both teams alike.
Houston is the non-Power 5 favorite to bust through to the College Football Playoff in 2016, after a 13-1 2015 season capped by a New Year’s Eve beating of Florida State in the Chic-Fil-A Peach Bowl. They are currently listed, along with as many as 11 others, as Big 12 expansion candidates. If the Cougars dreams are to be realized, it all starts by beating the Sooners on Saturday. That is no easy task.
The third ranked Oklahoma Sooners and defending Big 12 champions are led by junior quarterback Baker Mayfield, who threw for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2015. Mayfield is a Heisman candidate who can pick a defense apart. As if that’s not enough to worry about, the Sooners employ arguably he best 1-2 punch at running back in the country. Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are dynamic backs who can beat any defensive line they’ll face this season. Perine finished with 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Mixon gained 753 rushing yards and seven TDs on the ground. In 2015 the Sooners defense allowed only (22 ppg), which was good for 21st nationally. They are led by senior linebacker Jordan Evans, who finished with 83 tackles last season. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense at (364.5 ypg) as well as scoring defense at (22) points per game.
The fifteenth ranked Houston Cougars are defending American Athletic Conference and Peach Bowl Champions. Led by dynamic senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr, the Cougars always have a fighting chance. Ward Jr rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns while also passing for 2,828 yards and 17 scores. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes and threw just six interceptions in 345 attempts. He has two new running backs in Duke Catalon and Mulbah Car, as well as a host of speed at wide receiver led by Chance Allen, Ra’Shaad Samples, and Steven Dunbar. The Cougars also return five on an offensive line that can hold their own, and are more than serviceable for Ward Jr and the Cougar offense that ranked 10th in scoring offense (40.4 ppg) in 2015. The Cougars must find a way to slow down the two-headed monster at running back, while not letting Mayfield find his wide receivers down field against a Houston defense that lost their top 3 players in the secondary and starting middle linebacker to the NFL draft and graduation. On defense, Houston will be led by OLB Steven Taylor, who logged 10 sacks a year ago to lead the AAC and rank fifth nationally among linebackers. He also recorded 18.5 tackles for loss, 92 total tackles and three interceptions. With a reshaped secondary, and infusion of true freshman in the rotation, the Cougars will be young and hungry.
For the Cougars to pull off the upset, they must stay true to their game plan. Greg Ward Jr must protect the ball, and find open receivers when they’re open. The young running backs need to prevent getting hit behind the line of scrimmage, while managing to get out in space to use their speed with the ball. The Cougar defense has to find a way to slow down Perine and Mixon enough where Mayfield can’t sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense that has to play seven or eight on the box. This game should live up to its billing as two of the best teams in 2015, and will again be in 2016. If this indeed a Big 12 audition for Houston, a win sure can’t hurt their chances…
My prediction: Houston 34 Oklahoma 31