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2021 Week 13 Preview: Houston Cougars @ Connecticut Huskies

Houston aims to collect its 11th straight win before participating in the AAC Championship Game.

NCAA Football: Houston at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, November 27 at 12:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: Pratt & Whitney Stadium — East Hartford, CT
  • Spread: Houston (-32.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Houston has 97.2% chance to win
  • All-time series: Houston leads, 2-1
  • Last meeting: Houston 24, Connecticut 17 — October 19, 2019
  • Current streak: Houston, 2 (2016-19)

Preview

Many people go to stores on Black Friday. But the Houston Cougars will wait until Saturday before going to Storrs, CT.

Regardless of the result in the northeast, Houston is locked in its first AAC Championship Game appearance since 2015. The Cougars will face an undefeated Cincinnati squad with College Football Playoff aspirations at Nippert Stadium the following week on Dec. 4.

Houston cleared its entire AAC schedule and the Cougars are searching for their 11th straight win in a non-conference finale vs. Connecticut. It’s a familiar matchup for both programs, which squared off three times from 2015 to 2019 prior to UConn’s recent departure from the AAC. The 2015 iteration of Houston finished 13-1 and triumphed in a New Year’s Six bowl, but that one blemish can be attributed to UConn. In the confines of their home state, the Huskies upset Houston, 20-17 — the most recent win which helped UConn secure bowl eligibility.

The Cougars can catapult itself into the New Year’s Six picture once again by avenging that 2015 loss. An automatic New Year’s Six bowl slot is reserved for the highest ranked conference champion belonging to the AAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, C-USA, or MAC. Should the No. 24 ranked Cougars upset Cincinnati, their primary competition for that coveted bowl bid is Mountain West Championship Game participant San Diego State — currently situated at No. 21 in the College Football Playoff committee rankings.

On the other sideline, the Huskies are searching for their first win over an AAC opponent since October 2017 despite being a member of the conference in 2018 and 2019. Saturday will mark Lou Spanos’ final game as the program’s interim head coach. The defensive coordinator officially has a 1-8 record as UConn’s frontman this year, but the head coach baton will be passed to Jim Mora once Saturday subsides.

The two programs are on opposite sides of the spectrum for the 2021 season. The visiting Cougars storm into Connecticut with a 10-1 record, while UConn is 1-10 without a single FBS win. Houston ranks in the top 15 in scoring offense and top 25 in scoring defense, while UConn marinates in the bottom 10 of both categories.

One key separation between the former AAC foes is the amount of pressure they bring defensively. Houston brands its defense as “Sack Ave.” and that avenue produces sacks at the ninth highest rate in the country. UConn’s offensive line will receive plenty of feedback from Derek Parish and Logan Hall, who combine for 9.5 sacks on the year. While Houston averages 3.27 per game, UConn manages just 1.27 sacks, which is another bottom 10 FBS metric for the Huskies.

Decreased pressure could be advantageous for the Houston offense, a unit whose performance highly correlates with the play of quarterback Clayton Tune. Recovering from an early-season injury, Tune is utilizing his mobility more often and this facet is allowing Houston’s offense to become more multidimensional. Last outing against Memphis, Tune was one of three rushers to exceed the 55-yard barrier in a 31-13 victory.

But his main calling card is to be a passer, and he’s been sensational during the season’s second stretch. Although it broke the night Memphis came to town, Tune strung together a 5-game streak of games with multiple touchdown passes and zero interceptions — a crucial reason why Houston is 10-1.

One other reason for the Cougars’ 2021 turnaround is the Heisman-caliber playmaking of Marcus Jones. He is the only player in the country with four special teams touchdowns (two kick return, two punt returns), and he is tied for the FBS lead in interceptions with five. Jones enters Storrs on a 4-game streak of intercepting at least one pass. If head coach Dana Holgorsen elects to play him in his typical cornerback role against UConn, Jones’ ballhawking abilities should come in handy against a team which commits turnovers at the eighth highest rate in the nation.

When UConn has the ball, Houston must ensure the running backs don’t break past the first levels of the defense. The Huskies lost 49-17 last outing, but they showed flashes of potential in the run game at UCF. Halfback Nathan Carter broke free for a 45-yard run and finished with 77 yards and one touchdown. Carter generated two 120+ yard rushing games in 2021 and his production translates to offensive success for UConn, as one of those stellar rushing performances featured the Huskies’ highest point total of the year (28 points vs. Vanderbilt).


Prediction

These teams differ in a multitude of categories, and the records show it. Houston shouldn’t have to worry about a trap game before the AAC Championship Game because the Cougars essentially have an edge in every position group. UConn lost six of its games vs. FBS opponents by 30+ this year — including three straight — and Saturday seems destined to be another lopsided one. Cougars claim their 11th in a row and sustain a spot in the CFP rankings.

Prediction: Houston 48, Connecticut 3