The college football weekend begins on Thursday night this week with the American Athletic Conference opener for both Tulane and Houston. Both teams will be looking to get a jump in the AAC West Division race with a win, and Houston is also looking to bounce back from a loss last week.
The coaching matchup of Dana Holgorsen vs. Willie Fritz will be fun to watch with a contrasting mentality. Holgorsen likes the up-tempo, air-raid style, while Fritz prefers to keep things grounded with a well-executed option that isn't afraid to mix in a pass here and there. Houston will look to score quickly, while Tulane will be content to keep things grinding methodically on the ground as the seconds tick away.
Houston at Tulane
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Tulane -5
When Houston Has the Ball
After the season he had last year throwing the football, Houston quarterback D’Eriq King is off to a relatively sluggish start with his passing in the early stage of the season. With a completion percentage of just 54.5 percent, down nearly 10 points from last year, and 434 yards and four touchdowns, King seems primed to explode one of these weeks. To be fair, King has faced a couple of good teams in Oklahoma and Washington State, but having the nation’s 120th-ranked passing offense is a bit jarring to see a year after Houston fielded the No. 16 passing offense in the nation. And it’s not like Holgorsen doesn’t like the pass; his West Virginia team ranked No. 4 in passing offense a season ago.
So expect this to be a week when Houston tries to get things on track through the air. Tulane hasn’t been easy for opponents to throw on in the first few games. Even Auburn struggled with accuracy against the Green Wave and ended the day with just 207 yards and a touchdown against the Tulane pass defense. Tulane should be able to bring pressure on King with one of the best defensive lines in the AAC, although tracking him down on the go could be a different story. Four different players have recorded a sack for Tulane this season.
When Tulane Has the Ball
Justin McMillan has been a bit of a dual-threat for the offense, but he hasn’t exactly put up massive numbers just yet. McMillan has thrown for 424 yards and two touchdowns and run for a team-high 154 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t expect Houston to give up the kind of numbers to McMillan that it did against Jalen Hurts in their season opener, but it will not be a shock If Tulane pins its hopes on McMillan to make a play at various points in the game.
If it's through the air, Darnell Mooney will be money for the Green Wave. Mooney has 12 receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown in the past three games and has been the go-to receiver. Running back Amare Jones may be active catching some passes as well, as Tulane hopes to keep Houston’s defense on its toes.
Houston’s defensive numbers so far are not great, but they are weighed down by games against strong offensive teams from power conferences, Oklahoma and Washington State. Only Oklahoma managed to explode on the ground against the Cougars, but Washington State thrived with the passing game. Tulane won’t have quite the same caliber of firepower, but there is enough to find some holes in a Houston defense that has some issues.
After taking some bruises against power conference programs, Houston should be thirsty to make a statement in its conference opener. The Cougars certainly have the talent to open conference play with a bang, and they have had Tulane’s number over the last handful of seasons. But Tulane also knows they can beat the Cougars at home, as they did with a 20-17 victory in 2017 the last time Houston paid a visit. Can they do it again?
With Houston having some problems getting started and with Tulane playing at home, this could be a tough draw for Houston. Tulane can be just scrappy enough to cause some early frustrations and force a turnover or two in the first half to take a lead into the break. From there, Tulane must find a way to give McMillan something else to work with. If they do that, the Green Wave may be celebrating a pretty noteworthy win of their own while Houston continues to search for some answers.
Prediction: Tulane 24, Houston 23
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.