Two of the hottest college football teams in the nation from 2015 square off in Week 1 of the 2016 season. In fact, with a combined record of 24-3 a year ago, there’s not a better season-opening matchup in the nation.
Oklahoma, the champions of the Big 12 and the first team from that conference to represent the league in the College Football Playoff, travels south to H-Town to face the up-and-coming Houston Cougars. With Heisman Trophy candidates Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine, as well as one of the most talented defensive backfields in the nation at its disposal, the Sooners are once again national championship contenders.
The Cougars took a huge step forward as a program in 2015 under first-year head coach Tom Herman and were able to hold on to Herman despite an onslaught of suitors hailing from major conferences. A 13-1 record, American Athletic Conference title and Peach Bowl victory over Florida State gave Houston its first top ten post-season ranking in the AP poll since 1979.
Now, Houston has its sights on a second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game, as well as Big 12 expansion. And a season opening upset victory over the powerhouse Sooners would propel the Cougars into the Playoff discussion.
Oklahoma vs. Houston (NRG Stadium, Houston)
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Oklahoma -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Mayfield finished fourth in the Heisman voting and was named Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2015. He accumulated 3,700 passing yards, 36 touchdowns with just seven interceptions, plus 405 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground. Mayfield also helped the Sooners score a Big 12-best 44.0 points per game in conference play, as well as tally an incredibly balanced 592.9 yards of total offense (299.9 rushing, 293 passing) over the final seven regular season games.
Houston's Greg Ward Jr. was the only quarterback other than Clemson’s Deshaun Watson to pass for more than 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 in 2015. Ward is fast and elusive, which not only allows him to pick up big chunks of yardage on the ground, but it also gives him extra time to find an open receiver. Overall, Ward found the end zone 21 times on the ground (which ranked fifth in the nation) and tossed 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 345 pass attempts last year.
2. Greg Ward, Jr. Can’t Do it Alone
An elite quarterback is a great equalizer. Houston doesn’t match up well with Oklahoma on talent alone, but because the Cougars have a dynamic playmaker like Ward at their disposal, they’ve got a chance to pull an upset. But Ward can’t do it by himself.
Ward led the team in rushing, but the Cougars got a combined 1,642 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns from its top three running backs — all of whom must be replaced. Demarcus Ayers, the team’s leader with 98 receptions, 1,222 receiving yards and six touchdowns, also is gone. Fortunately, Texas transfer Duke Catalon appears ready to step up to be the primary ball carrier for Houston in 2016, and the Cougars welcome back their next five top pass catchers from last year’s receiving unit.
3. Oklahoma Offensive Line vs. Houston Front Seven
The Houston offense was tremendous a year ago and should be dynamic again in 2016. However, the Cougars' defense is the key to an upset victory over the Sooners and the Houston front seven matches up well. Oklahoma returns three starters on the offensive line, including potential future first-round tackle Orlando Brown, but the Sooners surrendered 41 sacks last season, which was more than all but five FBS programs.
Houston linebacker Steven Taylor is a legitimate NFL prospect. The senior recorded a Big 12-best 10 sacks in 2015, in addition to 92 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss and three interceptions. He and a talented defensive line helped hold opponents to just 108.9 rushing yards per game last season.
The Sooners once again have tremendous firepower on offense. Though Oklahoma lost star receiver Sterling Shepard, Mayfield still has plenty of weapons, such as wideout Dede Westbrook and tight end Mark Andrews to challenge the young Cougars through the air. Oklahoma also has one of the best running back duos in the country in Perine, who has run for 3,062 yards and 37 touchdowns across his first two seasons, and Joe Mixon.
Houston is talented up front, but the secondary is very young. The Cougars must replace four players that combined for 135 career starts in the defensive backfield, and were responsible for 25 of the squad’s nation-leading 35 turnovers a year ago. And, on the other side of the field, the Cougars will have their hands full with a Sooners defense that has All-Conference talent at each level, headlined by defensive lineman Charles Walker, linebacker Jordan Evans and defensive back Jordan Thomas.
Expect a hard-fought game, and a close score through halftime as the two sides knock off the rust of a long offseason, but for Oklahoma to pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Oklahoma 41, Houston 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.