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Football poised to reach the conference summit

The Cougars’ will be looking to avenge last years loss against Tulsa in its first conference game of the season. Last season, Houston was 4-1 and Tulsa was 1-5 when the two teams met in Oklahoma. But the Cougars were ran over and the Golden Hurricanes won 45-17 with 288 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, 128 passing yards and one passing touchdown. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Houston enters American Athletic Conference play tomorrow, and its schedule has set the team up to succeed with the other two leaders of the AAC West faltering and the rest of the conference cannibalizing itself.

The team started its season 3-1, and while its loss against Texas Tech killed its top 25 hype, there is still a chance for the team to regroup and regain recognition.

Houston’s No.1 offense in the nation can duke it out with anybody, and its schedule is far from a Murderers’ Row.

With that said, there are a few major threats and a couple dark horses that could disrupt a perfect conference record.

Warming up

The Cougars start the AAC schedule against two of the bottom feeders in the conference, Tulsa and East Carolina.

Tulsa’s sole win was against FCS team Central Arkansas, and the team has dropped its last three games against Texas, Arkansas State and Temple.

After last year’s debacle when the 4-1 Cougars went to Oklahoma and were run over by the 1-5 Hurricanes, the team will not take the game lightly.

Tulsa’s run offense is still top tier, No. 34 in yards per game, but the Cougars’ run defense has improved to No. 28 in nation compared to No. 47 last season and has allowed 24 percent less yards per game.

East Carolina does have one blowout win against North Carolina, but North Carolina was the worst Atlantic Coast Conference team last season and does not appear to have improved.

The 41-19 win was a glimpse at how the team can play at its peak, which it has not reached since. The team played a nickel and dime pass game with a steady run game that managed to break out for a few big plays.

But that short yardage pass and run style will have a hard time keeping up against the Cougars’ high-powered offense, and the Pirates might have to get out of their comfort zone and use deep passes to stay in the game.

East Carolina started the season with a loss to FCS team North Carolina A&T, then after the North Carolina win, the team went down to South Florida where it lost a close 20-13 game.

The team plays 2-3 Temple this week before facing Houston in Carolina on Oct. 13.

Steep climb

After the first two games, Houston will face two of the top teams in the conference in Navy and South Florida.

Despite the 2-2 start, Navy is still the same tough team year in and year out. The Midshipmen run heavy offense that makes the most of talent and lower-rated recruits.

The tricky offense is simple enough to learn but complex and unique enough that defenses have a hard time shutting it down completely.

The key to defeating that style of offense is disciplined defending. Defenders need to stay with their man and not bite on play fakes, something with which the Cougars have struggled.

A team that is not struggling this season is South Florida. The team lost its star quarterback Quinton Flowers, but junior transfer Blake Barnett has kept the team in its strong form. 

South Florida is undefeated so far this season. It is just six votes away from No. 25 in this week’s AP Poll and 13 away in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

South Florida plays Massachusetts, Tulsa and Connecticut before coming into town to play Houston. The Bulls should be undefeated then and will be the Cougars’ biggest in-conference test of the regular season.

Both teams have top 40 offenses and bottom 40 defenses, so the game should be explosive.

The two toughest tests on the schedule are not the only teams that Houston has to worry about, though.

Rough edges

After the two top teams in the AAC, Houston will face three teams on the cusp of being contenders in the conference.

SMU started the season with three tough games against North Texas, which has surged into the national spotlight with stellar play, Texas Christian and Michigan.

After those three games, SMU opened conference play with an overtime win over Navy and a lopsided win over FCS Houston Baptist.

SMU has steadily improved over the years. After it finished 2-10 in 2015, it earned a 5-7 record in 2016 and then 7-6 last season.

A problem for SMU is its lack of one explosive, game-changing player on offense. It has a consistent running back in senior Braeden West, but junior quarterback Ben Hicks lost the starting spot and is competing with freshman William Brown for it.

Temple has been a case of right people, wrong scheme for a few seasons. The team has had great recruiting classes over the last four years but has struggled to get results.

This year has been a mixed bag of results for the Owls. The team started the season with a loss against FCS team Villanova but beat Maryland, which beat Texas, and then kept it close against the ACC’s Boston College.

Just like the Mustangs, a problem for the Owls has been the team’s quarterback play. Senior Frank Nutile was injured after the second game, and redshirt sophomore Anthony Russo has not played much better in Nutile’s absence.

Neither quarterback has played particularly well, so the team needs to figure out which player will start in future games and get itself together.

If either SMU or Temple can solidify its quarterback, then the former’s consistent rise and the latter’s talent level could help the teams keep up with Houston.

Tulane is another case of steady improvement, though not as much as SMU. Except for the game against No. 3 Ohio State, Tulane kept things close in its losses this season.

Its win over Memphis was a surprise, as ESPN gave Tulane just a 21.7 percent chance of winning, but it has yet to be seen if it was a fluke or if the team is ready to punch above its weight class.

Last season, the Green Wave defeated the Cougars in a late-season upset, but that was early in junior quarterback D’Eriq King‘s tenure, and the offense is very different now.

The game will also be played at TDECU Stadium instead of New Orleans, and the team’s seniors will be sure to work hard to prevent their final home game from being a loss.

Final stop

Last but not least, defending AAC West champion Memphis will host Houston in the final game of the regular season.

Five weeks into the season, the Tigers have nearly lost as many games as they did last season, and the numbers paint a mixed picture of the team’s outlook. Memphis has had issues with play calling, but junior quarterback Brady White has stepped in and filled Riley Ferguson’s old shoes well.

White has thrown for 262 yards per game, 14 touchdowns and just one interception with 66.7 accuracy. King has thrown for 299 yards per game, 15 touchdowns and one interception with 62.7 percent accuracy.

But a closer look reveals that White’s numbers are inflated from playing lower competition.

When you take out the games against the FCS team Mercer and the Sun Belt’s Georgia State and South Alabama, White’s numbers drop to 196 yards per game, two touchdowns, one interception and 52.7 percent accuracy.

Meanwhile, without the TSU game inflating King’s numbers, he has thrown for 332 yards per game, 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions with 58.7 percent accuracy against a Big 12 team, a PAC-12 team and a Conference USA team.

The problem for Houston is its defense has not played much better than the Sun Belt teams’, if at all.

Memphis’ run game was great against Navy, but for unknown reasons, the team did not rely on it against Tulane, which made the team predictable and enabled its defeat.

If Memphis can get its play calling straight and White can elevate his game, the final game of the season will be a shootout with the potential to take down Houston.

Despite that, Houston has a very winnable schedule. It is within reason to expect a near perfect path to a championship showdown against UCF or USF.

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