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Foes familiar and new for Applewhite’s first season

Graphic by Sonny Singh

In Major Applewhite’s first season, the Cougars will face foes of recent years. Among them, two prime-time outings are against the Memphis Tigers and the Navy Midshipmen.

The 2017 football season will see the return of the Bayou Bucket Classic against the Rice Owls. In total, Major Applewhite’s team will leave Texas only five times. The Cougars don’t play Oklahoma or Louisville, but they will prepare for their conference match-ups against teams from the Pac-12, the Big 12 and Conference USA.

The biggest out-of-conference opponents are the Arizona Wildcats and the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Both will give the Cougars a chance to show their skill against Power 5 competition.

It has been over 30 years since the Cougars faced the Arizona Wildcats, so history can do little to predict this matchup. The Wildcats are coming off a season where they only won three games behind an offense that ranked No. 67 in the NCAA. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez has yet to match his success from 2014, when he guided the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

But with the No. 15 recruiting class by Rivals behind expected starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins, the Cougars could be in for a surprise. Arizona’s offensive line should improve with the addition of offensive tackle Keenan Walker and Michael Eletise, the No. 9 offensive guard. They also signed Kahi Neves, No. 14 inside linebacker, and Josh Allen, No. 9 defensive end, as a way to lay the ground work on improving their defense.

Given the recent successes for the Cougars, Arizona will see them as prep for the carousel of champions in the Pac-12 South.

Texas Tech enters 2017 following a season with opposite results in their offense and defense. The Red Raiders ranked No. 1 in total offense and No. 128 out of 128 in total defense.

This game will mark the return of Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsburg and defensive coordinator David Gibbs to Houston. Kingsburg was the offensive coordinator from 2008-2011 and Gibbs was the defensive coordinator 2013-2014.

The Red Raiders used the recent recruiting class to improve their defense, recruiting three defensive backs out of junior college: Octavious Morgan, No. 4 Cornerback Jaylon Lane and No. 9 safety Vaughnte Dorsey. Whether Gibbs’ defense will improve in his third year will determine their season.

Tech has been a carousel of quarterbacks that lead their high scoring offense. So even with quarterback Patrick Mahomes declaring for the NFL Draft, they will continue the air-raid system.

To win this game the Cougars will need to play hard-nosed defense. The Cougars learned in their games against Oklahoma and Louisville — No. 2 and No. 3 total offenses last season — to stop the offense they should stop the quarterback.

The Cougars open conference play when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Temple Owls. As defending conference champions, they deserve absolute respect from the Cougars. Temple will need a smooth transition from Matt Rhule to Geoff Collins if they hope to preserve their No. 3 ranked defense from last season. But considering Collins’ background as the Florida defensive coordinator, it seems likely.

For SMU, the Cougars will tackle this game like they did against Connecticut last season. Motivated by the embarrassing loss in 2016, the Cougars seek vengeance in 2017.

The next four games will be the hardest stretch for the Cougars. They travel to Tulsa, host Memphis and East Carolina, and then travel to South Florida.

Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery returns a team that led the American Conference in total offense, No. 4 overall. Cougar fans still remember the nail-biting game last season.

The Memphis Tigers return an offense that put 48 points on the Cougars last year. With Riley Ferguson still quarterback, head coach Mike Norvell’s team should only improve in year two. This should be one of the most exciting and nerve wracking games for the Cougars, as it has been the past two seasons.

South Florida, however, will be one of the toughest games this season. After going 11-2 last season, they received an upgrade at coaching in the form of Charlie Strong. Strong will improve the Bulls’ defense from last season, which ranked No. 120.

Last season, behind AAC Player of the Year quarterback Quinton Flowers and the No. 5 rushing offense, the Bulls ranked No. 11 in total offense and should continue their dominance during Flowers’ senior year.

In the last game of the season, the Cougars will face the Navy Midshipmen. Last season, their No. 4 rushing offense broke the hearts of Cougar nation. A large part of the Cougars’ loss came from them not having enough time to prepare for the triple-option offense. But this season they had plenty of preparation time.

It’s possible the winner could be hosting the AAC West in the championship game.

The season will kick off with an away game against the UTSA Roadrunners on September 9. The first home game is against rival Rice on September 16. Conference play will begin with an away game against reigning AAC champions Temple.

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