Houston may have seen its College Football Playoff dreams dashed two weeks ago, but Tom Herman’s Cougars are still very much in the conversation to reach the New Year's Six bowl lineup if they continue to win games (and get a little help to catch and pass Navy). With so much still to play for, Houston was pushed to the limit last week by Tulsa at home. After coming up with a goal-line stand with the game on the line, Houston is ready to hopefully get a breather this week against SMU.
Chad Morris continues to have work to do in order to turn SMU around, but there are signs of progress here and there with the program. With a youthful mix finding themselves, there could be good things still to come for the Mustangs, but they simply do not stack up man-to-man with Houston. Can SMU pull off a major stunner to take Houston entirely off the New Year's Six map? Or will Houston manage to put together a dominant performance that has eluded it the past couple of weeks?
Houston at SMU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Houston -21.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Houston get back to being Houston?
The past two weeks have given Houston a bit of a reality check, with a loss to Navy and a nail-biter against Tulsa. Granted, Navy and Tulsa are pretty good this season, but Houston should take the past two weeks as a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted. Will this be the week the Cougars return to their expected form, with a high-scoring offense and a physically dominating defense like we saw against Oklahoma and Cincinnati and UConn? It could be.
SMU is giving up more than 30 points per game and is last in the AAC in total defense, allowing 454.8 yards per game. This could be just what the doctor ordered for Houston.
2. SMU’s rising stars on offense
SMU may once again be a work in progress but head coach Chad Morris has a few young players on the rise that should give Mustang fans reason for optimism. Sophomore wide receiver Courtland Sutton is fourth in the AAC in receiving with 590 yards and four touchdowns (tied for second in the AAC). Another sophomore, Braeden West, is fourth in the conference in rushing with 521 yards (and three touchdowns). SMU also has a freshman playing quarterback in Ben Hicks, who is coming off his best game of the season (although in a losing effort).
3. SMU, not Houston, has the edge in turnover margin
This one may surprise you, but coming into this game the Mustangs own a positive turnover margin and Houston is on the negative side. Judging by their respective records, you would expect this would be the other way around. Houston has forced two turnovers in its last two games, but the Cougars have coughed the ball up six times with three each against Navy and Tulsa. Ball control will be a clear point of emphasis for Houston this week as the Cougars look to reverse a trend that has dropped Houston to 10th in the AAC in turnover margin.
SMU is 2-1 when it posts a plus turnover margin, and 0-3 when the Mustangs are on the negative side in a game.
Houston has dominated its rivals from SMU in the past three meetings, winning by a combined score of 118-37. The two programs are simply playing on different levels at this point in time, and that trend of Houston blowing away SMU should be expected to continue this weekend as the Cougars look to get back to doing what they do best. Greg Ward Jr. should find a comfort zone fairly quickly, and that could lead to some big plays and quick points as Houston builds a comfortable lead. Houston won’t look back from that and should pick up a relatively easy win.
Prediction: Houston 52, SMU 24
— 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.