Last year, the UConn Huskies shocked Houston and the college football world with a major upset. Houston was favored by more than a touchdown, and the line was only that close because quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. had rolled his ankle the week before against Memphis and was questionable for that game. That game remains Tom Herman’s only loss as a head coach. It won’t be repeated this year, as Houston avenged the loss with a 42-14 blowout win. This leads us to an important question: what, exactly, led to the upset last year? To follow that, is there anyone on the schedule who can do it this year?
How Last Year’s Upset Happened
Many will immediately blame Ward’s injury for the loss, but that isn’t quite fair to either the Huskies or the Cougars. Last year’s Houston team was not just Ward. More than that, though, Kyle Postma is a solid enough backup. No, he’s not as explosive as Ward running, but he is pretty mobile and he is a good passer. The loss came because of far more than just Ward’s absence.
First of all, Connecticut had a defense capable of keeping Houston in check. There was really no defense in the country that could have shut down the Cougars completely. UConn’s was good enough, though, to slow down the Cougars and keep the game within reach with a few lucky bounces.
Most importantly, UConn got those lucky bounces. Advanced metric rankings like F/+ and others actually didn’t like Houston much last year. On a play-by-play basis, Houston was a pretty good — but not great — team. What made Houston competitive with the top teams was its turnover margin. The Cougars went +21 (35:14) in turnovers last year. Quite simply, that’s incredible. In the game against Connecticut, though, Houston was -4. Those four turnovers were the real difference in that game.
This, of course, leads us to our main question. Are there any teams on Houston’s schedule that have the defense to keep the game close enough that a few right bounces could make the difference?
Can Anyone Upset the Cougars this Year?
Let’s start off by saying that I’m not counting Louisville. Louisville can absolutely beat Houston. Actually, the teams have a lot of similarities, so that game should be a very good one. That wouldn’t qualify as an upset, regardless of who comes into that game as the favorite. It will be expected to be close, and Louisville will likely be favored (unless the Cardinals get blown out by Clemson on Saturday). So, aside from Louisville, can anyone beat Houston this year?
Looking at Houston’s AAC schedule, two teams jump out at me. The first is Houston’s next game. The Navy Midshipmen were a ranked team last year and are undefeated so far this year. Many will expect that game to be close. Unfortunately for Navy, I don’t see them having what it takes to keep it close. Houston’s offense tore through the Navy defense last year, which was better than it is this year. I can’t see Navy getting very many stops, which means that the Midshipmen won’t be able to keep this game close. Also, because Houston just played on Thursday night, the defense gets nine full days to prepare for Navy’s triple-option instead of just seven.
No one else before November really has the talent to even scare Houston. A few teams in the AAC East might (South Florida and East Carolina come to mind), but Houston doesn’t have to play either of those in conference games this season. No, Houston’s toughest test will actually come in its regular-season finale, the week after the game against Louisville. It’s a road trip to Memphis.
We will get an excellent gauge of just how good Memphis is when the Tigers play Mississippi on Saturday. They upset the Rebels last year, though star coach Justin Fuente isn’t here anymore. Then again, Memphis just beat Bowling Green 77-3. Bowling Green isn’t a powerful program by any stretch, but the Falcons are usually a pretty solid team. For some contrast, Bowling Green lost to Ohio State 77-10. The Memphis and Ohio State defenses did a pretty similar job against the Falcons. Now, Memphis does not have anywhere near the talent of Ohio State on defense, but the Tigers are playing very well early.
It’s a long season until we get to November. Win or lose against Ole Miss this week, Memphis will still be one of the most talented teams in the AAC. It has a defense that can slow down anyone, even Houston. UConn showed us last year that if a team slows down Houston, it can give itself a chance. If the Memphis defense stays as good as it is now throughout the season, it will definitely be able to give the Tigers a chance to pull of a big upset in the AAC–or even nationally, if Houston is coming off a win.
Also, as I mentioned before, there are a few teams in the AAC East that can give Houston some trouble. It’s too early to predict that far in advance–or whether Houston will even make the game–but Cincinnati, South Florida, and East Carolina all could definitely play Houston close.