After getting a week off in a game that was never going to be in doubt, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is expected to be back on the field to keep Houston’s master plan alive. Two weeks after starting the season with a bang against Oklahoma, the Cougars hit the road for a conference opener against Cincinnati. Might this be a preview of this season’s American Athletic Conference championship game? We’ll have to wait to find out, but the Cougars will face what may be one of their toughest tests in conference play this season.
Houston at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Houston -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. What shape is Greg Ward Jr. in?
Earlier this week, doctors cleared Ward to return to the team in time for Thursday night’s road game at Cincinnati. The Houston starting quarterback injured his shoulder in the season-opening victory over Oklahoma. With him expected to be back to lead the Houston offense, that should be good news for the Cougars. The only question is how healthy is he? Will he easily be knocked out of the game if Cincinnati gets a good lick on him? Can Cincinnati rough up his shoulder just enough to disrupt his mechanics? These are critical questions that could lead to an advantage for Cincinnati.
How important is Ward? Houston lost just one game last season, on the road against UConn. Guess who didn’t play in that game? You got it.
2. Cincinnati returns home with confidence, and a dual-threat QB
While not even close to the caliber of win over a power conference opponent as Houston owns, Cincinnati is back at home a week after taking care of a similar foe on the road. Cincinnati defeated Purdue on Saturday. In the win, Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore passed for three touchdowns and was not intercepted. Moore also ran for 58 yards and scored the only two rushing touchdowns of the game for Cincinnati. The dual-threat ability has been on display this season, but now he will have to try and keep that going against a Houston defense that really played well against the Sooners and pitched a shutout last week.
3. Houston LB Steven Taylor may be all over the place
If there was one thing that may have been a surprise in the season-opening victory over Oklahoma, it was probably Houston’s defense. It played much more physical than many assumed, and linebacker Steven Taylor was as involved as any player. Already with 3.5 sacks in just two games, look for Taylor to be tested by Cincinnati as the Bearcats try to get him in an uncomfortable position. This should prove to be easier said than done, as he should manage to be just about everywhere and anywhere when needed.
Houston still looks to be a solid favorite on paper and on the field, even on the road against a team the Cougars may face once more this season in the conference championship game. If Greg Ward Jr. is healthy and gets in a rhythm early, it could make for a long night for Cincinnati on its own turf. After picking up a win against Oklahoma, it looks as though the Cougars will leave everyone in the Group of Five in the dust, but can the Bearcats score an upset that opens the door for almost everyone else, including themselves? It’s certainly not impossible, especially if they can create some turnovers. Through two weeks, Cincinnati leads the AAC in turnovers forced and owns the AAC’s best turnover margin (+5). Houston has lost the ball just twice, with one in each game. Cincinnati will need to make that happen more often to pull the upset.
Prediction: Houston 38, Cincinnati 27
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.