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Houston Cougars vs. South Florida Bulls Preview and Prediction

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The last American Athletic Conference team to sneak into a New Year’s Six bowl will try to upset the team most believe will be the next on Friday night. Houston will try to rebound from a heartbreaking home loss when it travels to Tampa to face No. 17 South Florida.

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The Bulls are coming off of their closest game of the year on Saturday as they were forced to hold off Tulane on the road, 34-28. Houston on the other hand, missed a huge opportunity last Thursday by letting a 17-point lead slip away in a 42-38 loss to Memphis.

Both teams are led by well-known first-year head coaches in Major Applewhite for the Cougars and Charlie Strong for the Bulls. The schools have not faced one another since 2014 when Houston went to Tampa and beat USF, 27-3. This will be just the fifth meeting between the schools. They split the previous four.

Houston at South Florida

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 3:45 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

Spread: South Florida -10.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Quinton Flowers vs. the Houston Secondary

Flowers (above, right) is still one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in America, but as a passer this season, South Florida's senior signal-caller has taken a significant step back. Flowers is completing less than 52 percent of his passes and was just 10 of 24 last week in a victory over Tulane. Flowers also is averaging just 7.2 yards per attempt after averaging 8.5 last season.

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Fortunately for Flowers, he'll be facing a Houston defense that ranks just 89th in total yards allowed per game and is tied for 106th against the pass. Memphis' Riley Ferguson lit the Cougars up for 471 yards last week. While the Cougars have given up large numbers in terms of yardage, they have been opportunistic with 10 interceptions, which ranks ninth nationally. Flowers has thrown just three picks this season, but his strength is still with his legs. The goal for Houston will be to force Flowers to win the game with his arm. Junior safety Garrett Davis leads Houston with four interceptions on the year.

2. Ed Oliver

If Houston is going to stay competitive with South Florida on Saturday, the key will be winning the battle up front, which starts with Oliver. He will by far be the best defensive tackle that the Bulls have faced this season and is arguably the best player in the country at that position. Oliver has 42 tackles for the year, including seven for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. While Oliver can certainly rush the passer, his chore on Saturday will be stuffing the ground game of the Bulls.

USF is averaging more than 305 rushing yards per game this season with several players getting into the act. The Bulls currently have three different players with more than 500 yards on the ground this season, led by Darius Tice's 634 and nine rushing touchdowns. Flowers and D'Ernest Johnson aren't far behind. South Florida will give a lot of different looks from power to the zone-read to the option. The first thing Houston must do is take away the middle and that task will be on Oliver.

3. Turnover margin

It's hard to talk about South Florida without noting how good the Bulls have been when it comes to turnover margin. For the year, USF is the best in the country when it comes to this category at plus-13 or nearly plus-two per game. For the year, USF has taken the ball away 19 times while only giving it away six. The Bulls also lead the country in interceptions with 17, which is four more than the next closest team. The secondary is led by safety Devin Abraham, who ranks fifth nationally with four picks on the year.

For Houston, turnovers have also told the story. In the Cougars' four wins, they're plus-five when it comes to turnover margin. In their three losses, they're minus-seven. When Houston has won this season, it has not lost the turnover battle. When it has lost, it has been on the wrong side of the turnover differential. Houston turned it over three times last week against Memphis with all three coming in the second half, including on each of its final two possession while trailing 42-38.

Final Analysis

The competition hasn't been stiff for undefeated South Florida this season, but in terms of talent, Houston may be the best the Bulls have faced. Ed Oliver is one of the best defensive linemen in the country and the Cougars also have a talented offense quarterback Kyle Postma, running back Duke Catalon and veteran wide receiver Steven Dunbar leading the way. Scoring enough points to keep up with USF however, will be a challenge. The Cougars played well defensively for the early parts of the year, but have allowed 87 points over the last two weeks. The Bulls have a number of weapons and are at home where they look to run the nation's longest winning streak to 13 and score at least 30 points for the 26th straight game.

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Prediction: South Florida 34, Houston 24

— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the editor of The Daily Nole. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook and follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.