- Time and Date: Saturday, November 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Raymond James Stadium — Tampa, FL
- Spread: Houston (-13)
- ESPN FPI: Houston has 82.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 5-2
- Last meeting: Houston 56, South Florida 21 — November 14, 2020
- Current streak: Houston, 5 (2013-20)
Setting the scene
Dana Holgorsen’s Cougars have assembled seven wins in a row with no sign of stopping in sight. Houston (7-1, 5-0 AAC) is fresh off its first ranked win since 2018 and continues to control its destiny for its first AAC game appearance since 2015. South Florida (2-6, 1-4 AAC) is on the verge of missing out on bowl season for the third consecutive year heading into a showdown with the red-hot Cougars.
Two of the last three times met, it’s been an AP ranked team against an unranked team, and the unranked squad triumphed on both occasions. Both times, the ranking belonged to South Florida, but now, Houston holds a position in the AP Poll heading into Saturday while the Bulls look to play spoiler.
Houston Cougars outlook
The Houston Cougars are ranked for the first time since 2018... depending who you ask! The AP Poll lists the Cougars as the No. 20 team in the country after their signature win over previously unbeaten SMU. The College Football Playoff committee, notorious for severely under-ranking AAC teams, did not apply a number next to Houston’s name.
Despite the lack of ranking, Houston’s second New Year’s Six bowl appearance in the College Football Playoff era remains on the table should the Cougars win out and claim the conference championship. But Houston must impress the doubters and avoid a letdown performance in Tampa against a South Florida team with one FBS victory in the last 730 days.
The Cougars are coming off their most notable win of the Dana Holgorsen era. After securing an early 17-0 lead over SMU and facing adversity in the middle quarters, Houston sealed the victory on a play for the ages. With 30 seconds remaining, All-American return specialist Marcus Jones returned a kickoff out of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
It marked Jones’ fourth special teams score of the season, which is etched in the cornerback’s Heisman résumé along with the interception he recorded in the fourth quarter and his early-season endeavors as a wide receiver. His all-around success is nothing new. Jones ran a punt back to the house against South Florida last season, so it’s safe to say the Bulls may elect to avoid kicking the ball to the electric returner.
Whether or not the Cougars earn their routine special teams touchdown, Houston’s offense hopes to maintain its level of scoring from the prior week. The Cougars entered last Saturday without an offensive play gaining more than 47 yards the entire season, yet they crossed that barrier three times in the first half alone. Quarterback Clayton Tune established a lethal downfield connection with his receivers, specifically Nathaniel Dell. The star wideout racked up 165 yards and three touchdowns in the victory, easily slipping past his defender every time SMU assigned him one-on-one man coverage.
The rushing game is set to return lead back Alton McCaskill, who left the SMU game in the first quarter with a lower leg injury. But last year against South Florida, Houston’s rushing attack got its most prominent contribution outside of the halfback position. Tune scrambled for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 10 rushes in the victory. Early-season injuries have limited Tune from escaping the pocket this season, but he is easing back into form after notching his first positive rushing performance since Week 2.
Pitted against one of college football’s elite offenses, Houston allowed its most points since the opening week of the season when SMU strolled into town. Yet, there were promising displays from the Cougars in the 44-37 victory. Houston produces the highest sack output in the country at 4.25 per game and registered three on a previously-indestructible SMU offensive line. South Florida is no stranger to this capability, as the Bulls endured four sacks and seven tackles for loss from Houston last November, including a strip-sack by David Anenih that was returned for an 85-yard touchdown by Derek Parish.
The Cougars’ top 10 rushing defense allowed just 77 yards to the Mustangs and they look to continue that trend against a South Florida team that has recently excelled on the ground. Houston’s pass defense, led by Jones and fellow cornerback Damarion Williams, didn’t experience its strongest night against a juggernaut SMU offense, but this week’s matchup features a secondary which allows 190.5 yards per game against a passing attack which produces just 172.4 — a more favorable pairing for Houston.
South Florida Bulls outlook
The past two weeks proved that strides are already being made in year two of the Jeff Scott era. The former Clemson assistant entered a massive rebuilding project in Tampa, but he picked up his first FBS win as a head coach in a Week 8 thrashing of Temple. In hopes of creating the program’s first win streak since October 2019, Scott’s team led East Carolina, 14-6, at halftime on the road, but the Bulls could not establish enough offense in the second half to upend the Pirates and win two straight.
South Florida should regenerate some of that offense should starting quarterback Timmy McClain return from his ankle injury Saturday. According to Will Turner of Bulls247, Scott expects McClain to be back in the lineup after missing the East Carolina game. The true freshman’s first campaign at the collegiate level has witnessed moderate success this season. McClain has remained free of throwing an interception in his last six games while demonstrating considerable mobility outside the pocket. In the chance McClain isn’t ready to test his ankle, Katravis Marsh could see his second consecutive start after completing 15/30 passes for 192 yards in the Bulls’ prior game.
With an ever-revolving quarterback door that has featured three different starters in 2021, the Bulls aren’t a team that posts 200 passing yards on a routine basis. The stats from their 113th ranked pass offense pale in comparison to the numbers generated on the ground. In the past two games, South Florida has placed an emphasis on getting the ball to Kelley Joiner out of the backfield, and it’s paid off. The junior tailback cashed in on his increased attempts with 126 and 103 yards against Temple and East Carolina, respectively, averaging around nine yards per carry in both contests.
On the other side of the ball, South Florida hasn’t demonstrated strength in either facet of the defense. The Bulls are situated at 105th in the FBS in most rushing yards allowed and 120th in the pass defense department. Their last three weeks have been their best three weeks against FBS competition, but they are starting games stronger than they are finishing them.
South Florida hasn’t allowed a first quarter point since the Oct. 2 loss to SMU after shutting out three consecutive opponents in the opening frame. But in AAC play, the Bulls have been outscored 36-7 in fourth quarters, signifying the defense isn’t forcing the punts and turnovers they manufacture out of the gate. Prying away the ball has undoubtedly been the strongpoint of this defense. Averaging one interception per game, this defense must create those takeaway opportunities for a recipe to upset Houston — a team whose only loss of 2021 was highly dependent on turning the ball over.
Three consecutive weeks with halftime leads over AAC competition proves that Jeff Scott is building something in Tampa, but Houston presents the Bulls’ greatest challenge in quite a while. The Cougars bring one of the country’s statistically best defenses into the Sunshine State, and South Florida may not have the offensive firepower to counter.
A Houston team which finished 3-5 asserted its dominance on defense against South Florida last November, holding a massive 42-0 lead in the third quarter before South Florida finally broke the shutout. This year’s Cougar team is even better at applying pressure, excelling in different coverage schemes, and stifling running backs at the line of scrimmage. Combine that factor with Tune and the offense (which has scored 40+ in three of the last four weeks) getting into rhythm, and the outcome should be a lopsided result at Raymond James Stadium.
Houston 45, South Florida 17