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Making the case for the Houston Cougars as AAC frontrunners

After the worst season in nearly two decades, Houston Cougars football is not only back. Here’s why they’re ready to compete for an AAC title.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Houston Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Cougars are coming off their first two-year stretch with an overall losing record since 2004-05. If there’s anything to know about this program, it’s that they don’t stay down for long. Houston hasn’t even fielded consecutive losing seasons in the past 18 years, and that trend looks destined to continue after the statement the program made in its opener on Thursday night.

After missing out on bowl eligibility for the first time since joining the American Conference, the Cougars expected better than the putrid 4-8 result they experienced in Dana Holgorsen’s first year at the helm. But after a 49-31 victory over Tulane, Houston looks more than “back” — the team appears to be legitimate AAC contenders.

With perennial frontrunners Memphis and UCF suffering alarming losses in Week 5, the conference looks wide open for the first time since Temple bested Navy in the 2016 title game. Here are four reasons why Houston, after four canceled season-openers and a long-awaited return, looks to fit the part of a contender after a one game sample size.

The rust will wear off

Houston entered TDECU Stadium on Thursday night looking like a team that hadn’t played in nearly 12 months. Careless turnovers consumed Houston’s offense in the early moments of the first half. On the opening possession of the season, quarterback Clayton Tune threw a desperation heave on a fourth down to avoid a sack, and his lob was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Tulane. Two drives later, a misread on the blocking scheme caused Tune to face a brutal sack, and he was stripped. The Green Wave recovered the ball in the end zone for their second defensive touchdown of the night. Two possessions after the miscue, star wide receiver Marquez Stevenson’s knee poked the ball out for a fumble after a 22-yard catch and run.

Overall, Houston lost the turnover battle 5-0 and still dominated with an 18-point victory. According to College GameDay statistician Chris “The Bear” Fallica, it was the fourth time since 2004 where a team lost the turnover battle by five and won by double-digits.

Winning convincingly after a reckless night of protecting the ball is a testament to how much margin for error Houston had Thursday night. Additionally, the team committed 10 penalties for 84 yards. But the good news is, every glaring weakness Houston showed was easy fixable. With the first-game nerves settled, expect a more disciplined brand of football from Holgorsen’s team going forward.

The defensive line is a problem for opponents

The AAC features some of the best offenses in college football. UCF runs its high-tempo scheme like an efficient factory down in Orlando. Memphis always employs an All-American caliber halfback in the backfield and dominates opponents through screen passes. Even SMU has made a surge recently by dominating the transfer market with talented skill position players.

Likewise, Houston looks to have a great offense, but the Cougars can separate from their peers by exhibiting one of the best defenses in the conference. That dominance starts with the defensive line, a unit which imposed its will on Tulane all night long. Overall, Houston partied in the backfield with six sacks and 12 tackles for loss. The Green Wave’s running game — fresh off a 427-yard, 7-touchdown, 7.9-yards per carry performance at Southern Miss — was stifled to 70 yards and 1.6 yards per attempt.

Defensive end Payton Turner is a bona fide star and possibly the best defensive lineman in the conference. The senior was virtually unblockable with 4.5 tackles for loss while constantly applying pressure on Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt. Pratt only completed 11/25 of his attempts and was forced to hurry during the majority of his time spent in the pocket.

The only thing Turner and the Houston defense missed out on was recording a takeaway, but laying the groundwork by repeatedly stopping the opponent is of utmost importance. The turnovers will come, but the “Third Ward Defense” allowing just 17 points while limiting all facets of Tulane’s offense is a promising sign of improvement for a team which ranked 113th in points allowed per game a season ago.

Houston’s defense isn’t quite at the level of Cincinnati’s after a one-game sample size, but the Cougars field one of the top units in the conference. A 49-point boost from the offense is something that is rarely seen with the Bearcats though. Combine the offensive potential with the defensive line’s ability to shed blocks and invade the backfield, and Houston has the recipe to win many matchups on its 9-game schedule this season.

Clayton Tune has perfected the deep ball

Holgorsen couldn’t contain his excitement about Tune’s development. That was demonstrated by Houston’s first play call of the season — a deep ball from Tune to Stevenson down the sideline. The junior quarterback and second-year starter perfectly placed his throw into Stevenson’s pocket, and it was clear that 2020 Tune is an accelerated version of his 2019 self.

Tune set aside his early turnovers and brought Houston back into the game by making similar throws for the rest of the evening. Throwing into 1-on-1 coverage is now a high percentage play for the Houston offense, given Tune’s improved deep ball accuracy.

Tune completed 20/33 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns overall. While he doesn’t present the same rushing threat as his predecessor D’Eriq King, Tune does a solid job on scrambles outside of the pocket. He dusted the defense with an 18-yard run in the game and can utilize his mobility to add versatility to Houston’s offense. Losing King in the transfer portal was a difficult loss for the Cougars, but Holgorsen worked wonders with Will Grier at West Virginia and he’s proving he can do the same with Tune in the Lone Star State.

Houston contended in its conferences with Case Keenum, Greg Ward Jr., and D’Eriq King at quarterback over the years. If Clayton Tune continues excellent placement on his throws, the Cougars have another premier quarterback in the making.

Who is stopping Marquez Stevenson?

Plenty of players are labeled “playmaker”, but not many players fit the definition better than wide receiver and return specialist Marquez Stevenson. One of the fastest sprinters in college football, Stevenson is especially dangerous because he can strike from anywhere at anytime. Last season, he led all FBS players with six touchdowns of 60 or more yards.

That trend continued in 2020, as he returned a kick 97 yards to re-take the lead for Houston in the third quarter. Stevenson’s speed is the defining feature of his game, but his abilities to break through contact and visualize where to run make him a difficult player to stop in an open field.

Stevenson is the most lethal playmaker in the AAC, and his contributions weren’t just limited to special teams on Thursday night. The 2019 First Team All-AAC selection averaged nearly 24 yards per catch in a 118-yard performance. He out-sprinted two Tulane defensive backs in the fourth quarter to seal the victory with a 41-yard touchdown reception. Stevenson’s ability to take over a game is one primary factor which keeps Houston dangerous in AAC play this season because most college defensive backs cannot shut down his blazing speed and crafty route running on a consistent basis.