Dana Holgorsen will make his highly anticipated debut as the Houston Cougars head coach Sunday night on the road against an Oklahoma Sooners team whose end goal remains the same despite having to break in a new starting quarterback. Holgorsen is well familiar with Oklahoma from his days at West Virginia (2011-18), but he's hoping to turn his fortunes around against the Sooners as he went 0-7 against as the Mountaineers head coach.
On the other sideline, all Lincoln Riley has done in his first two seasons at OU is lead the team to a 24-4 record, two Big 12 titles, two trips to the College Football Playoff, and coach the past two Heisman Trophy winners (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray). Riley's signal-caller this season is Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who doesn't fit the same mold as Mayfield and Murray when it comes to playing style. Hurts has a strong supporting cast to help ease him in but when it comes to the Sooners' lofty goals the biggest question may be how does a beleaguered defense respond to new coordinator Alex Grinch.
Sunday night should serve as a good barometer for both teams but even at home, it's safe to say there's more pressure on Oklahoma to show that regardless of who is at quarterback, it's business as usual in Norman.
Houston at Oklahoma
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oklahoma -23.5
Houston's Keys to Victory
Sooner Nation has waited eight months to see new coordinator Alex Grinch unleash what promises to be an attacking defense. After watching OU bend and frequently break in recent years, an aggressive scheme will certainly make for a refreshing change of pace. But can the Sooners actually put up a fight on that side of the ball?
The Cougars will test the new-look defense right off the bat. Offensive guru Dana Holgorsen is taking charge of what was already an explosive attack, and UH gets dynamic quarterback D'Eriq King back after a knee injury cut his 2018 season short. King has an assortment of weapons at his disposal, too. Leading rusher Patrick Carr is back for another season, as are top receiving targets Keith Corbin, Courtney Lark, and Marquez Stevenson.
Holgorsen may try to use the Sooners' defensive aggressiveness against them with misdirection and delayed runs. Given how poorly OU has defended the pass, though, King will likely take to the air early and often. Keep an eye on how the Cougars try to use their size out wide by isolating their receivers against OU cornerbacks Tre Brown and Parnell Motley, both of whom are trying to make up for the disappointments of a year ago.
Oklahoma's Keys to Victory
Once again, the big story with OU's offense is the man behind center. Senior Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts left Tuscaloosa in search of a place where he could prove he has an NFL-caliber skill set. He's working with one of the best QB developers alive in Lincoln Riley.
For his part, Riley needs to figure out the best way to maximize Hurts' strengths. OU probably wouldn't have pursued the transfer QB if the head coach didn't believe Hurts can throw the ball well enough to keep the Sooners humming. Yet, combining the QB's bruising running style with OU's physical ground game must be tempting for Riley.
Joe Cauthen, Houston's new defensive coordinator, may try to confuse OU's green offensive line with movement up front and disguised blitzes. The Sooners bring back just one starter in the unit, which raises legitimate concerns about the chemistry among the starters. The Cougars could take advantage of miscommunication and blown assignments to create some chaos in the offensive backfield. UH will need to capitalize on some Sooner miscues to have a shot at winning.
Houston got a bad break when college football's television overlords decided to move this kickoff. The home crowd's anticipation for the first game of the season will be amped up by the rare Sunday night game in Norman.
Even so, OU can't feel optimistic about its chances of shutting down King and all of his weapons. A new defensive scheme doesn't change the fact that the Sooners have a long way to go before they prove all the ugliness of recent seasons is behind them.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, their defense may be in even worse shape. UH collapsed down the stretch, allowing 37.2 points per game. The Cougs gave up 45, 59, 52, and 70 points in four of their final five games of the year. Aside from a decent set of safeties in juniors Deontay Anderson and Gleson Sprewell, Cauthen is scrambling to fill out UH's defensive personnel.
Even if OU loses some of the offensive potency of years past, the odds that the Cougars can generate more stops on defense than the Sooners are low. Houston will need to rack up a significant edge in turnover margin to keep OU from winning comfortably.
Prediction: Oklahoma 48, Houston 24
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
(Top photo courtesy of @UHCougarFB)