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SMU Mustangs vs. Houston Cougars Preview and Prediction

Greg Ward Jr.

Greg Ward Jr.

Your Thursday night sports viewing may be a little crowded with playoff baseball, the start of the NHL season and some game going on in the NFL, but the American Athletic Conference has a game well worth keeping an eye on that night as well. Houston and SMU, home to two up-and-coming head coaches, get a share of the national spotlight Thursday as the Cougars look to remain a player in the evolving Group of 5 race to the New Year's Six.

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Houston has not lost at home to SMU since 2005 (we'll give a pass for the 2013 game, played in Reliant Stadium while Houston played nearly the whole season away from its campus). Can the Cougars keep the good vibes going this weekend against an SMU team that is showing signs of life?

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SMU at Houston

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Thursday)

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: Houston -21

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Three Things to Watch

1. SMU not about to back down against any opponent

Do not let the 1-4 record for SMU fool you too much into thinking this is the same old SMU that has struggled in recent years. These Mustangs are not about to roll over and let teams walk over them from the start. New head coach Chad Morris does have a lot of rebuilding to do with the program, but one noticeable difference with this year's team is the competitiveness has stepped up from a year ago. SMU's problem is keeping things going after a decent start.

SMU hung with Baylor for a half before the Bears took control in the second half of the season opener. A similar theme played out in the TCU game. Last week against East Carolina saw SMU jump out to a 23-7 lead before running into a wall and losing 49-23.

2. Tom Herman's latest QB masterpiece?

Anyone who has watched Ohio State this season can probably explain to others just how valuable a piece of the coaching staff former quarterbacks coach Tom Herman was in Columbus. Herman has moved on from his masterpiece in Columbus from lasts season's championship run and is now putting in some good work as Houston's new head coach with Greg Ward Jr.

The junior quarterback is averaging 264.5 yards per game and carries a passer rating of 164.94 into Thursday night. In guiding Houston's offense, Ward has thrown eight touchdowns with just one interception in four games. The only teams with fewer interceptions in the AAC this season are Memphis and Navy, but the Midshipmen hardly throw the ball, so does that really count? Ward is showing great improvement from last season, when he tossed 12 touchdowns and was intercepted seven times in 13 games. This season Ward has not been intercepted inside the opponent's 40-yard line.

3. Houston an emerging Group of 5 contender?

If you are not paying attention to what is happening in the Group of 5 picture beyond the typical Boise State developments, then you should start paying attention to the AAC West Division. Houston, Memphis and Navy are all off to solid starts and climbing the ladder in the Group of 5 race. Houston already has a win against a power conference opponent on the road (Louisville) and is set up to make a nice run in division play. Look to see if these Cougars can seize the opportunity to shine on national television and put together a solid, well-rounded effort to gain some respect from the voters and selection committee for down the road.

Final Analysis

Houston and SMU offer a great coaching match-up between two popular first-time head coaches. Chad Morris has much more work to do at SMU compared to Tom Herman's situation at Houston. As such, Herman and Houston appear to be the clear favorite in this year's matchup. Both offenses should put up some points early on, but SMU will once again struggle to keep up the pace against a Houston team that should thrive through the air. 

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Prediction: Houston 46, SMU 28

— 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 writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.