Tulane and Houston enter their Thursday night matchup headed in opposite directions but with the same goal in mind — claiming at least a share of first place in the American Athletic Conference's West Division. The Cougars (7-3, 4-2 AAC) finds themselves in the midst of a two-game slide, tempering the momentum built during their 7-1 start. Houston remains in the division hunt, although SMU currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to their head-to-head win two weeks ago.
The Green Wave (5-5, 4-2) have won three in a row and just need one more victory to become bowl eligible. Tulane also is still in contention for the division title, but the Green Wave have already lost to the Mustangs as well. So both teams will need some help if they want to represent the West in the AAC Championship Game but first order of business is get the W on Thursday night.
Since 1968, Houston has gone 16-6 in games against Tulane. The Green Wave earned a 20-17 victory last year to snap a two-game losing streak to the Cougars.
Tulane at Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Cougars' offense vs. Green Wave's defense
Houston has dropped its last three games, but its offense still remains atop the AAC. The Cougars have outscored their opponents 478-344 this year, and they’re averaging 47.8 points per game. Houston has done much of its scoring damage in the fourth quarter this season, as the team has tallied 143 points in the final period. The Houston offense is averaging 544.9 yards per game and 7.1 yards per play.
Tulane’s defense is allowing 16.6 points per game during its current three-game win streak, and opposing offenses haven’t scored more than 18 points against the unit during that span. On the year, the Green Wave defense is giving up 25.8 points to opponents. Tulane’s red zone defense (No. 11 in FBS) has been stellar this year. In 10 games, the Green Wave opponents have scored points on just 25 of their 34 trips (.735).
2. Houston quarterback D’Eriq King
King enters this late-season matchup as the AAC leader in passing yards per game (289.9). King is the FBS leader with 35 touchdown passes, and his 168.2 passer efficiency ranks him sixth in the nation.
King threw for 322 yards and ran for another 125 yards en route to a six-touchdown performance in last week’s loss to Temple. King should have another opportunity to up his total touchdowns against a Tulane pass defense that has been unstable for most of the year.
The Green Wave are allowing 280.5 passing yards per game to opposing quarterbacks this season.
3. Tulane quarterback Justin McMillan
McMillan, a graduate transfer from LSU, was tabbed to lead the Tulane offense in late October. He had pedestrian starts against Tulsa and South Florida — both wins — but enjoyed a breakout performance last week against East Carolina. He went 12-of-28 for 372 yards with three touchdowns.
McMillan is 40-of-87 for 721 yards with six touchdowns in six games this year.
With two weeks left in the regular season, this matchup will certainly define the AAC West landscape and help shake up the current three-way tie. Houston’s offense can score with the best of them, and after an underwhelming last two outings, the Cougars are desperately seeking a win.
Tulane has played itself into AAC West contention with its three-game surge, and a win against Houston would secure bowl eligibility. A win coupled with an SMU loss would propel the Green Wave to the top of the divisional standings. Tulane has been much improved, but Houston should earn the win this week to stop its skid.
Prediction: Houston 38, Tulane 20
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
(Top photo courtesy of Houston Cougar Football Facebook page)