The Texas Tech Red Raiders and Houston Cougars are set to meet in the Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium in Houston on Saturday. Texas Tech won two of its final three games by a combined four points last year to finish 4-6 overall and 3-6 in Big 12 play. The Red Raiders also fell by single digits in two games. Houston didn’t play its first game until October because of schedule disruptions but got off to a strong 2-1 start before losing four of five, including a 28-14 loss to Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl, to finish 3-5 overall and 3-3 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
Though both teams finished on the wrong side of .500 last season, both enter the 2021 season with bowl game aspirations. It’s only Week 1, but the winner would take a big step toward bowl eligibility. A victory would also quiet some doubters for either head coach. Tech’s Matt Wells and Houston’s Dana Holgorsen are a combined 15-27 in two seasons at their respective schools.
Texas Tech vs. Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Spread: Texas Tech -1
When Texas Tech Has the Ball
It was a surprise to many when Oregon starting quarterback Tyler Shough entered the transfer portal after the 2020 season, and it surprised many more when the Arizona native chose to continue his career at Texas Tech. But Shough could be exactly what the Red Raiders are looking for. A prototypical 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Shough completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,559 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions last season. His 9.3 yards per pass attempt led the Pac-12 by a full yard, and ranked No. 12 on the FBS leaderboard beside Ohio State signal-caller Justin Fields. A gifted runner as well, Shough added 271 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 66 carries.
Erik Ezukanma led the Red Raiders in every receiving category last season: 46 receptions, 748 yards and six touchdowns. Ezukanma suffered an arm injury in the spring but is recovered and ready to be Shough’s top target in 2021. Tech also added Kaylon Geiger as a transfer from Troy. Geiger, who caught 64 passes for 752 yards and three touchdowns last year, should have a big role in the offense. Myles Price ranked second to Ezukanma in receiving yards (305) last season at Tech. Price caught one touchdown pass and ranked third behind KeSean Carter, who has since transferred to Houston, in receptions (29).
Running back SaRodorick Thompson led the Red Raiders with 610 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 109 carries last season. Though Thompson returns atop the depth chart, he has been slowed recently by injury and is questionable to play against the Cougars. If Thompson can’t go, Xavier White (436 yds., 2 TDs) and Tahj Brooks (255, 4) should share the workload.
When Houston Has the Ball
Quarterback Clayton Tune ranked fourth in the AAC in passing in 2020, having averaged 256.0 yards per game through the air. His 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 10 interceptions point to room for improvement, but Tune also tossed 15 touchdowns and can be a dangerous runner. He gained 253 yards and scored five times on the ground last season, including a 120-yard, two-touchdown performance against USF.
Marquez Stevenson is off to the NFL, but Nathaniel Dell led the Cougars with 29 receptions and 428 yards last season. Dell’s three touchdown grabs were second only to Stevenson’s four. Christian Trahan emerged as one of the most productive tight ends in the AAC when he caught 22 passes for 294 yards and two scores. Jeremy Singleton is capable of more than the 10 receptions and 95 yards he accumulated last season, and will be given an opportunity to show it as a starter. The aforementioned Carter and fellow transfers Jake Herslow, Jaylen Erwin and Seth Green should work into the rotation as well.
Leading rusher Kyle Porter is gone, but Mulbah Car has plenty of experience. Car ran for 192 yards and two touchdowns last season after surpassing 300 yards in each of the previous three years. He has 10 career rushing touchdowns for the Cougars. Chandler Smith and Ta’Zhawn Henry (who like Carter and defensive back Alex Hogan transferred from Tech) provide depth.
Neither team is known for great defense, but Houston lost a pair of NFL draft picks in first-round edge rusher Payton Turner and seventh-round linebacker Grant Stuard, and the Red Raiders must replace cornerback Zech McPhearson, who was selected in the fourth round. Both programs have dipped into the transfer portal for help on defense, and Texas Tech is expected to start three first-year transfers in the secondary. Seven of the 11 projected starters on the Houston defensive depth chart began their college careers elsewhere, though only one (nose guard Latrell Bankston) is in their first season with the Cougars. The Houston offensive line will feature two new transfer additions, however.
Though it will be played in Houston, Saturday’s contest isn’t technically a home game for the Cougars. NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, will host the matchup and a large percentage of the stands will be filled by Texas Tech fans. Logistics matter some, and Houston will benefit from a regular pregame routine (as much as any team does in its first game). Will it be the difference between two evenly matched teams? Probably not. That could be Tune, Houston’s underrated quarterback, against a new-look Red Raiders secondary. If the Cougars’ back five – which returns fully intact – can keep Shough from a hot start, Houston should be able to pick up an important first victory.
Prediction: Houston 35, Texas Tech 31
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks