8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Houston -3, Over/Under: 59
A key American Athletic Conference clash is on tap tonight from TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas, as the Houston Cougars host the Twenty-Fifth-Ranked Memphis Tigers. Existing on the fringes of the AP Poll throughout the campaign, Memphis (5-1, 2-1 in AAC) finally made their presence felt in the Rankings Sunday after earning arguably their most important victory of the term, fending off Navy in a 30-27 thriller at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee. At the moment, the Midshipmen lead the Tigers by just a game in the AAC West by virtue of a slightly better record in conference play, though this head-to-head victory for Mike Norvell’s kids will in all probability loom large the rest of the way. The hosts had to weather the storm early against then Twenty-Fifth-Ranked Navy, who tried to set the tempo early, owning the lead through the brunt of the First Half, before the home side was able to square things away at ten points apiece before the midway point. We’d like to know what Norvell told his young charges, for the final thirty minutes was all Tigers, who went on to score twenty of the next twenty-nine points, with a Safety of Quarterback Riley Ferguson aiding their opponent’s cause. While Memphis’s prolific Offense ended up hanging 403 Total Yards on the visiting side, their Defense managed to turn them over on five occasions (two of which were Interceptions), which is no small feat when you’re facing someone who threw the ball just seven times. The aforementioned continued his torrid start to the campaign, completing 24-of-40 Attempts for 279 Yards, and three Touchdowns, while the tandem of Darrell Henderson (67 CAR, 532 YDS 3 TD) and Patrick Taylor (57 CAR, 307 YDS, 3 TD) rushed for a cumulative 125 Yards on only seventeen Carries. It really shouldn’t come as any surprise that they were able best Navy in the manner they did, for the best way to describe the Tigers’ gameplan through the first six games is Fast & Furious. Now, we’ll spare you any cheesy car clichés, but this attack has the potential of being downright nightmarish on a weekly basis; just ask poor Connecticut, who was torched for a staggering seventy points and 711 Total Yards two weeks ago, or then Twenty-Fifth-Ranked UCLA who found out the hard way that this particular Non-Power Five School should not be overlooked in a 48-45 upset back in early September. In his second year on the job, Norvell has created an explosive attack that ranks among the nation’s best, averaging 40.3 Points per Game (12th Overall) on 490.7 Total Yards, including 310.5 through the air and another 180.2 on the ground. As we mentioned earlier, Ferguson (59.3%, 302.3 Y/G, 7.7 Y/A, 19 TD, 5 INT) has been the engine behind their success, leading the AAC in both Passing Yards (1,814) and Passing Touchdowns (Nineteen), all the while forming one of the deadliest pass-catching combinations with Receiver Anthony Miller, accounting for forty-five Receptions, 606 Yards, and nine Touchdowns, which also leads the conference. These two had quite the performance when they met Houston a year ago in the Regular Season Finale, an epic 48-45 victory that featured a whopping 1,179 Total Yards of Offense and ten Touchdowns. Ferguson and Miller were in synch throughout the contest, hooking up fifteen times for 169 Yards and a pair of scores. However, as explosive as the Offense has proven capable of being, the Defense has taken much longer to develop, as the Tigers keep finding themselves in shootouts for this reason. Thus far, Memphis has allowed 33.8 Points per Game (103rd Overall) on 477.5 Total Yards, with the main issue coming against the Run, where the opposition has trampled them to the tune of 208.3 Yards on 4.6 Yards per Carry. Twice this season they’ve relinquished over 600 Yards, including their lone loss on the campaign, a brutal 40-13 debacle at Central Florida in which the Golden Knights ran wild for 350 Yards on the ground. In this regard, their only saving grace has been their uncanny ability to force Turnovers, which as was the case against Navy, able to mask quite a few of their defensive ills; Memphis has registered seventeen Takeaways thus far, with at least three in all but two of their outings to this point.
Meanwhile, the Post Tom Herman Era at Houston (4-2, 2-1 in AAC) has been a bit of a mixed bag thus far given a soft schedule, though a considerable step-up in competition should give us a better idea of exactly where this program is headed in these uncharted waters. Needless to say, the Herman Era was quite a successful (though brief) one for the Cougars Program, which went 22-4 between 2015 and 2016, including a 13-1 record in the former, highlighted by a shocking 38-24 victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl, while at one point reaching their highest point in the AP Poll in school history (Sixth) in the latter. Alas, as the narrative often goes for these Non-Power Five Programs, their Head Coach was destined for bigger and better things, quickly pouncing on the Texas gig before the season was even completed. Taking over is Major Applewhite, who of course is one of the most decorated Quarterbacks in Longhorns’ History, and had served as an Offensive Assistant from 2008 to 2013 in Austin, before joining Herman’s Staff in 2015. Rather than follow his mentor back north, Applewhite chose to remain south and embrace the Head Coaching Position he manned during their Las Vegas Bowl loss to San Diego State, attempting to build off of the foundation that he helped Herman put in place. So what do we make of the Cougars, you ask? Well, as we led with, it’s difficult to tell at this point. Applewhite’s charges started well enough with a narrow victory at Arizona (19-16) in the Season Opener before hammering Rice in their Home Opener (38-3), only to end up on the wrong end of a close one with Texas Tech (24-27) the following weekend. Wins over Temple (20-13) and SMU (35-22) helped build confidence, though a good deal of that had to be thrown out the proverbial window as they were bombarded at Tulsa in a 45-17 thumping last Saturday, against a team that had previously won just one game thus far. The common thread tying all of these opponents together is that none of them are currently ranked, or have been ranked at any given point of the season, while collectively they own a mediocre record of 18-20. Now in looking towards the immediate future, and there are dates with Memphis (No. 25) and South Florida (No. 16), along with Navy, who was just knocked from the ranks of the undefeated no less. So yeah, business is about to pick up for Applewhite and his charges. This isn’t good news given that there are still quite a few issues to be solved on both sides of the ball, with a Quarterback Controversy on Offense, and a Defense that can’t seem to stop anyone with any real consistency. Through six games, Houston has seen both Kyle Postma (65.6% 161.0 Y/G, 6.6 Y/A, 4 TD, 5 INT) and Kyle Allen (250.3 Y/G, 7.2 Y/A, 4 TD, 4 INT) lead the Offense, with the latter starting the first three games of the term before being pulled in favor of the former midway through the loss to the Red Raiders. Postma, a senior holdover from the Herman Era, has the ability to make plays with his legs (37 CAR, 151 YDS, 1 TD), but has been unimpressive passing the ball, tossing more Interceptions (Five) than Touchdowns (Four), while Allen, a Transfer from Texas A&M, has been only marginally better with as many Touchdowns as Interceptions (Four apiece), along with a pair of fumbles. With neither Quarterback managing to distance himself from the other, we get the sense that the answer to this position isn’t currently on the Depth Chart, and Applewhite knows it. Defensively, at first glance the Cougars haven’t appeared to be all that bad, limiting the opposition to a respectable 21.0 Points per Game (40th Overall), but when you consider the caliber of opponents that they’ve faced, and the fact that they’ve still been gashed for an average of 403.0 Total Yards, you start envision a clearer picture of their struggles. Again, when Tulsa hangs forty-five points on you, while rushing for 288 Yards, there may be a problem with this unit. Or how about giving up well over 500 Yards to both Texas Tech and SMU? What the hell is going to happen against the most prolific Offense in the American Athletic Conference then? We’ll find out soon enough.