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Arizona football opponent preview: Houston

What to expect from the Cougars in Week 2

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

We will be previewing all the Arizona Wildcats’ opponents before the 2018 season kicks off, and next up are the Houston Cougars. Our BYU preview can be found here.

Introduction

The second leg of this home-and-home will take place at 9 a.m. Tucson time in Houston. This is a rematch of last season’s Week 2 nail-biter that resulted in a 19-16 road victory for the Cougars. Houston will look much different in this matchup as they are returning only 10 of 22 starters. However, two of them are probably their most important players in defensive tackle Ed Oliver and quarterback D’Eriq King.

Head coach Major Applewhite enters the season looking to get back on the track that Tom Herman had them on prior to his departure to Texas. Herman was 22-4 in his two seasons at Houston, which is daunting feat to replicate.

The Rundown

  • Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 5 on defense
  • 2017 Record: 7-5
  • Head Coach: Major Applewhite (7-6, second season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

  • 2017 S&P+ Overall: 36th
  • 2017 S&P+ Offense: 37th
  • 2017 S&P+ Defense: 49th
  • 2018 S&P+ Projection: 59th
  • 2018 Projected Record: 8-4

2017 Recap

The Cougars finished the regular season 7-4 due to a cancelled Week 1 matchup at UTSA in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. After starting the season 4-1, they finished 3-4 which included a loss in their bowl game against Fresno State.

Houston’s offense mainly suffered from a lack of stability at the quarterback position. Three different quarterbacks attempted at least 100 passes throughout the season. Ultimately, Applewhite settled on D’Eriq King as the starter, who lead Houston to a 3-2 record during that time.

Houston finished the season with a 5-3 conference record, which was good for fourth place in the 12-team American Athletic Conference. The season was one of regression since Houston won nine games in 2016. However, their cancelled game in Week 1 could have easily resulted in an eighth win, and they lost four games by five points or less. So they were far more competitive than their 7-5 record suggests.

Offensive Outlook

Former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has been hired to the same position for the Cougars. Everyone remembers the up-tempo, potent offense the Bears ran during his time. His pairing with D’Eriq King could make for a dangerous matchup for opposing defenses, so long as the skill positions can make it happen.

It’ll be difficult to replace wide receivers Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner. They accounted for 55.5% of the team’s total receptions and 62.5% of its receiving yards in 2017. The leading candidates to fill this void are Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin.

Yes, they are inexperienced as far as the stats show (23 receptions for 305 yards combined) but Lark and Corbin are both upperclassmen and as well as former four-star and high end three-star recruits, respectively. It’s fair to assume that the implementation of a Kendal Briles offensive scheme can bring out the best in just about any college player.

Houston is also losing its leading rusher from a year ago in Duke Catalon. The team’s second leading rusher, Mulbah Car, will likely see a major uptick in action as the team will need to replace Catalon’s 149 carries.

Another name in the backfield to keep on your radar is Baylor graduate transfer Terence Williams. He was a 1,000 rusher and found the endzone 11 times for Briles in 2016.

Defensive Outlook

One name is all you need to know, Ed Oliver. In 2017, Houston ranked 26th and 22nd in Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+, respectively. As mentioned, they are only returning five defensive starters but they are returning other key pieces like linebacker Emeke Egbule, defensive linemen Jerard Carter and Isaiah Chambers.

Their run defense may not take too much of setback giving the returning aforementioned pieces. It’s their pass defense that might take a step back. They’re plenty talented but they will have a few more new pieces.

They are returning safety Garrett Davis who has started in 22 games over the past two seasons. The additions of Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson and Notre Dame transfer Nick Watkins will also have immediate impact for the defensive unit.

Anderson played safety during his time at Ole Miss but is projected to see time at linebacker. Watkins will step right in and compete for one of the starting jobs at cornerback.

3 Players to Watch

Ed Oliver, DT

The reigning Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) winner enters the season as a surefire All-American candidate. ESPN released an article ranking the top 50 players in the FBS and they listed Oliver No. 1. In fact, Mel Kiper Jr has him listed No. 1 his “way-too-early” Big Board rankings for the 2019 NFL Draft. If you watched last season’s matchup in Tucson, you’ll likely agree all of this praise is warranted.

Oliver had 11 tackles, a forced fumble, and even blocked a kick.

D’Eriq King, QB

The junior quarterback enters fall camp as the definitive starter. Last season, he became the full-time starter late in the season and was Applewhite’s guy for the final five games.

King was 90-for-139 for 1,260 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions through the air, while rushing for 379 yards and eight touchdowns on 72 attempts.

King has shades of Khalil Tate’s game in terms of the lethal dual-threat ability. His rushing stats aren’t as devastating as Tate nor is he as physically gifted, but he has the ability to break off big gains on the ground, nonetheless.

Deontay Anderson, S

It’s becoming increasingly common for recruits to transfer, but it’s not so common to land a former high-end recruit such as Anderson. The redshirt sophomore transferred from Ole Miss and has been granted immediate eligibility at Houston.

ESPN rated him the No. 1 safety in 2016 class. He saw the field immediately for the Rebels and earned Freshman All-SEC second team honors that season. This is a major addition for the Cougars that should pay major dividends.