Across the Big 12, most teams are wrapping up non-conference play this week, which for many will end up impacting their bowl eligibility. Non-conference opponents require different kinds of preparation because they are typically not very familiar with one another. This week’s matchup between the Houston Cougars (2-0) and the Texas Tech Red Raiders (1-1) carries some added intrigue in that respect.
This non-conference matchups features two former Big 12 quarterbacks with a lot of Texas ties who used to face off against one another as players. A former quarterback for the University of Texas, Major Applewhite will travel to a familiar road environment in order to take on head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was a signal caller at Texas Tech.
Between them, both coaches have spent time at nearly every FBS school in Texas. Most of the players on their respective rosters also have deep ties to the Lone Star State, something that probably creates some bad blood between these squads. Even though this isn’t a rivalry, this game will likely have that atmosphere on Saturday.
The Cougars have started out undefeated in their second season under head coach Applewhite, a one-time quarterback at Texas in the early 2000s. That’s good news for the head coach, who’s on a bit of a hot seat. Going 7-5 like he did last year can never cut it at place like Houston, where they expect to be a dominant Group of Five team year in and year out.
Houston comes into this game with a bit of momentum after winning their first two games of 2018. The Cougars are averaging 45 points per game, up from the 28 they averaged per contest last season. This offseason, Applewhite went out and hired a new offensive coordinator in former FAU assistant Kendall Briles, son of Art Briles.
Briles was brought in to install the “Veer and Shoot” offense that Baylor made popular under his father, and so far it seems to have helped Houston take some strides on that side of the ball.
D’Eriq King, the starting quarterback for the Cougars, has looked good behind a balanced attack that’s posting 277 rushing yards per game. Last week, King threw for four touchdowns and ran one in himself.
Defensively, the Cougars have struggled at the start of the 2018 season. That’s disappointing, considering that Houston has arguably the best defensive player in the nation in defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Oliver is expected to be a Day One pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Oliver’s presence has helped the Houston rush defense remain respectable, but the Cougars have been having issues defending the pass. After playing perennial basement-dwellers Rice and Arizona, Houston is giving up 336.5 yards through the air.
Like Applewhite, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury could improve his job security with this non-conference win. Even though it’s only mid-September, the Red Raiders are looking at the legitimate possibility of not qualifying for a bowl game in 2018.
That’s if history is any indication, at least. A 1-2 start in conference would mean that Texas Tech would have to be above .500 in Big 12 play in order to get to six wins. When’s the last time they pulled off such a feat under Kingsbury? It hasn’t happened, at least not yet.
They’ll have to navigate a bit of a quarterback conundrum, as there are a couple of possible starter for Saturday’s game.
McLane Carter is the more mobile option, but a high ankle sprain has made his status as a starter uncertain for Saturday’s contest. If he can’t go, he’ll be replaced by true freshman Alan Bowman, who is completing 68.9 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception through two games. Bowman played in relief of Carter in the Red Raiders’ loss to Ole Miss, struggling to connect with receivers downfield.
As you might expect, last week Bowman looked better against FCS Lamar, a team that’s had one winning season since 2010.
Bowman is more of a classic Air Raid quarterback who prefers to stand in the pocket and sling it. Expect to see the offense throw the ball more with him in the game.
Defensively, the Red Raiders started off struggling against Ole Miss, but managed to have a bounce back game last week. Multiple players on the defense were named to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team, but so far the Red Raiders have struggled to prevent big plays from hurting them.
Texas Tech was expected to be improved in 2018 on defense after making some big strides in 2017. Last season, the Red Raiders went from allowing 43.7 to 34.3 points per game. After shutting out Lamar, they are on pace to improve again.
Texas Tech may not be elite on defense, but they may not need to be in order to contain the Houston offense.
Keys To The Game For Texas Tech
Stay Ahead Of The Chains – The Red Raiders can probably have success throwing the ball against Houston, but their ability to do so will likely be dictated by the down-and-distance situations they’re facing. If Texas Tech can stick with their run game in order to pick up four and five yard gains, that will take pressure off Alan Bowman to make plays downfield.
Stop The Run – This contest is really going to test the Red Raiders’ front six, including the well-known Dakota Allen. Houston is averaging 274 yards per carry and will probably be the toughest running attack that Texas Tech has faced to this point in the season. If the Red Raiders can contain King, Terence Williams, and Patrick Car, they can get Houston behind the chains. Doing that will be key to stopping the Cougars’ offense.
Tackle Well In Open Space – Texas Tech may not be able to stop the Houston defense in the same way they did on the road last season, but they will have to prevent the big plays. Making Houston drive the length of the field will put pressure on the Cougars to be efficient on every single play. Eventually, that will put the Red Raiders in a position to make some key third down stops. If Texas Tech can settle in against the Cougars, they might be able to take advantage of some forced errors.
This game is probably going to be a close one, similar to last year’s contest. With games like that, I tend to lean on what the guys in Vegas are thinking going in. Houston is a one point favorite as the road team in an environment that is one of the toughest places to play. Were this game at night, the Red Raiders might actually have more of an edge.
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury is 6-6 against the spread as a home favorite, something that really tempts me to go more in the direction of Houston getting a narrow win in Lubbock. The Cougars will face the toughest test of their season, but the difference in this game will be Houston’s defense and Texas Tech’s injuries.
Uncertainty at the quarterback position for the Red Raiders will ultimately, I think, give Houston a slight advantage. Turnovers will be big in this game, and I’m leaning more towards Texas Tech being the team that loses the turnover battle. Houston by a field goal.