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Previewing Houston-Arizona by the numbers

Which set of cats will pull off a win on Saturday? We dove into the numbers to try to find out.

NCAA Football: Texas Kickoff-Oklahoma vs Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Arizona Wildcats will host the Houston Cougars in the first year of a home-and-home series. Houston may have lost head coach Tom Herman, but they still have the talent he recruited and a pretty good coach — Major Applewhite — at the helm.

Can the Wildcats secure a win and take a step towards bowl eligibility? Let’s take a look at some of the numbers underlying this matchup.


After rushing for 511 yards in their Territorial Cup win over Arizona State at the end of last season, Arizona’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat in the season opener against NAU. The Wildcats racked up 506 yards on the ground in a true team effort, with six different players rushing for more than 50 yards. This is how it should be. Arizona’s backfield is extremely talented, and leveraging that talent is how Arizona can win games.


...but man, it would be nice to be able to pass for 100 yards! The Wildcats only mustered 89 yards through the air behind a 7/13 performance by Brandon Dawkins. Arizona’s average yards per carry (10.8) was significantly higher than the average yards per pass attempt (6.4), which is pretty uncommon.

This kind of disparity between rushing yards and passing yards is uncommon among FBS teams, but there are a few exceptions. Georgia Tech, for example, ran for 535 yards and passed for 120 in their narrow 2OT loss to Tennessee. Navy ran for 416 yards and passed for 110 in their shellacking of Florida Atlantic. And Army had 0 yards passing (that’s right, 0 yards passing) to go along with 513 yards rushing in their destruction of Fordham.

What do Georgia Tech, Navy, and Army have in common? All three are triple option teams. While some Arizona fans joke about running the triple option, it’s looking more and more like the Wildcats have the footprint of a triple option team, even if they’re not actually running the triple option.


We don’t have the luxury of evaluating Houston based on their performance last week because their Week One game against UTSA was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey. With that said, we can still look at how Houston projected prior to the season to get an idea of what the Wildcats will face.

The Cougars’ preseason ranking, per Bill Connelly’s S&P+, was 49. Bill’s preseason preview does a great job of showing exactly why Houston is going to be dangerous. Houston quarterback Kyle Allen is a former five-star recruit. Senior wider receiver Linell Bonner is on the 2017 Biletnikoff Award Watch List after finishing fifth in the nation in receptions last season. And sophomore (?!?!) defensive lineman Ed Oliver is arguably the best college football player in the country.

For reference, the Wildcats’ preseason S&P+ ranking was 68. Houston is simply more talented than Arizona. This is a problem.


Fortunately, this game will be played at home in Tucson, and without a Week One game, the Cougars may be rusty. As a result, the spread is Arizona +1, giving Houston the slight edge, though S&P+ projects this game as a statistical tie.

Arizona fans should not feel great about this matchup. Usually, a Power Five team will at least be more talented than their Group of Five opponent.

For example, though Arizona State struggled against New Mexico State last week, it was clear the Sun Devils at least had more talent. Ditto for Illinois/Ball State.

That’s not the case here. Houston is more talented. And though there are ways the Wildcats can pull off a win (namely, rushing for 500 yards yet again), the Cougars are a serious threat to steal a win in Tucson.