Time and Date: Saturday, September 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: NRG Stadium — Houston, TX
Spread: Texas Tech (-1)
ESPN FPI: Texas Tech has 64.3% chance to win
All-time series: Houston leads, 18-13-1
Last meeting: Texas Tech 63, Houston 49 — September 15, 2018
Setting the scene
It’s a Texas-sized showdown in the Lone Star State’s largest city to start the year. Although the game transpires in Houston, this matchup between the Cougars and Red Raiders is technically a neutral-site game due to its location at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. Both head coaches, Dana Holgorsen and Matt Wells, enter year three with their respective programs in search of achieving bowl eligibility. Offenses usually run unhinged when these universities settle things on the gridiron, so we should be in for a shootout Saturday night.
Houston Cougars outlook
It’s time to finally right the ship in the Dana Holgorsen era for the Cougars. Despite two consecutive losing seasons, there are expectations for this team to contend in the AAC after ranking No. 4 in the conference’s media day poll.
Houston’s offense is headlined by third-year starting quarterback Clayton Tune, who hopes to replicate his stellar start to 2020. Tune launched last season with a streak of three-consecutive 300-yard outings on accurate passing numbers, complemented by seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. His ability to scramble toward the sidelines also opens up another dimension for the offense if defenses don’t bottle him up. Tune unleashed 120 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns vs. South Florida last year after the Bulls failed to emphasize their contain. However, turnovers plagued the end of the year for Tune, so adding consistency and accuracy to his game are the x-factors in sharpening Houston’s offense.
The Cougars averaged under 4.0 yards per rushing attempt last year, so growing the run game will be a focus for this team. They brought in center Kody Russey from Louisiana Tech to boost the strength of the interior line and pave way for the halfbacks. Not a single running back registered 100 yards in a game in 2020, so Houston hopes its veteran group can ameliorate that issue. Mulbah Car, a staple at the position since 2016, returns to be the lead halfback for this program after attaining nearly 1,500 career rushing yards as a Cougar. Chandler Smith is also a veteran in the locker room and should see a magnified role as the No. 2 back this season.
It was a revolving door of an offseason at wide receiver. The team’s most electrifying talent in Marquez Stevenson departed for the NFL Draft while key contributors in Keith Corbin and Tre’Von Bradley entered the transfer portal. But transfer portal taketh, transfer portal giveth, and Houston received Jaylen Erwin from UCLA and projected starter KeSean Carter from Texas Tech to replace lost talent. Transfer receivers have paid dividends for this program in the Holgorsen era. Last season, Nathaniel Dell stepped in from the FCS level and led the team in receptions and receiving yards. Now, Dell is expected to be Tune’s preferred target as 2021 rolls around.
Defensively, Houston’s primary emphasis this year will be escalating the turnover output. The Cougars were unable to pry the ball from opponents in 2020 and finished in the bottom 15 of the FBS in takeaways per contest. Causing that havoc starts in the defensive line which must replace NFL first-round draft pick Payton Turner. Even sans Turner, the Cougars present experienced pass rushers in defensive ends Derek Parish and David Anenih, who combined for 8.0 sacks last fall. Houston tied for 16th in sack output, but Texas Tech showcases a solid, experienced offensive line which allowed just 1.6 sacks per game.
The secondary presents plenty of intrigue for this Houston defense. The cornerback duo of Damarion Williams and Marcus Jones must prevent an explosion from an offense which typically thrives through the air. Williams led the team in pass breakups last season, while Jones is the unit’s active leader in interceptions. Jones’ abilities aren’t limited to defense though. As a punt returner, he is as talented as anyone in the FBS and the All-American was the only player to record 100 punt return yards in two separate games last season.
With Texas Tech is motioning away from the air raid in the Matt Wells era, Houston’s linebackers will play a different role than the previous matchups vs. Texas Tech. The Cougars must increase their focus on stifling the rushing ability of the Red Raiders’ running backs and transfer quarterback Tyler Shough — a physical runner with one of the best spin moves displayed by any quarterback in the country. One player equipped to fulfill the role in limiting Shough is Deontay Anderson, who converted from safety to outside linebacker this offseason. Anderson is the most versatile player on this defense, complete with a résumé of 6.5 tackles for loss, 19 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles as a Cougar.
Texas Tech Red Raiders outlook
The Red Raiders have been in a state of stagnancy for quite some time, stringing together five consecutive seasons of losing records — earning between four and six wins each time. Similar to Holgorsen, head coach Matt Wells enters year three at the helm aiming to attain bowl eligibility for the first time since relocating to the Lone Star State.
Texas Tech brought in Oregon transfer Tyler Shough to step into the starting quarterback role. Shough started all seven games for the Pac-12 champions last season before traveling south in February. His tenure as the Ducks’ No. 1 QB started strong with a trio of wins over Stanford, Washington State, and UCLA, combining for 873 passing yards, eight passing touchdowns, and 197 rushing yards over that span. After rougher outings against Oregon State and Cal, Shough was eventually replaced by Anthony Brown but the Chandler, AZ native clearly exhibited talent to thrive as an FBS starter. He’ll enjoy strong pass protection as he enters Lubbock with an established offensive line returning four starters.
The Red Raiders’ running back duo of SaRodorick Thompson and Xavier White returns to support Shough and the offense. Thompson kicked off last season strong with back-to-back 100-yard, multi-touchdown performances and finished the year averaging a career-best 5.6 yards per carry. White managed 7.0 per carry and started to break through at the end of 2020 — attaining 243 rushing yards on 23 touches in his final two performances. Texas Tech’s offense performs best when the run game is at the forefront, so establishing that should be of utmost importance Saturday night.
Shough wasn’t Texas Tech’s only massive transfer portal haul offensively. Wide receiver Kaylon Geiger led Troy in receiving yards each of the past two seasons and is expected to shoulder a major load for wideout production in 2021. He joins established Red Raider receivers Erik Ezukanma (the team’s leading receiver in 2019 and 2020) and McLane Mannix to complete the starting receiving trio. Mannix missed the majority of 2020, but he is usually a force to start the season as suggested by his five combined touchdowns across three openers since 2017.
On defense, the Red Raiders allowed 60 points twice and yielded one additional 50-point outburst in 2020. But the defense held its own at times and was the primary reason Texas Tech slid past West Virginia, Baylor, and Kansas in conference play.
This will be one of the most veteran defenses in the country, taking advantage of the NCAA’s grant of an extra year of eligibility for all players. The unit is loaded with senior and grad transfer talent across the board, especially at linebacker. The Red Raiders return each of their four leading tacklers form 2020, with linebackers Krishon Merriweather and Colin Schooler likely drawing the most attention from the Houston offense.
Similar to the Cougars, forcing turnovers was not a forté of this defense in 2020 and the Red Raiders finished last in the Big 12 in this category. Zech McPhearson was the main architect of causing takeaways, securing four of Texas Tech’s five interceptions last fall while recovering two fumbles. Although the star cornerback has departed for the NFL, the Red Raiders restocked well through the transfer portal. Additions include cornerback Malik Dunlap who started 10 games at NC State and strong safety Reggie Pearson who started 13 games at Wisconsin.
It’s hard not to project a high-scoring barnburner when seeing the Houston and Texas Tech logos pitted against each other.
For Houston, the key to the game is to keep Shough in the pocket and apply immense pressure to the former Duck. Oregon’s offensive output had a strong correlation in 2020 with Shough’s rushing production, and reducing him to solely a pocket passer must be a point of emphasis for the Cougars.
Tune must fire on cylinders for Houston to come out on top and limit turnovers. He concluded the prior season with eight interceptions across the final five games and the Cougars etched a 1-4 record over that span. Losing the turnover battle is something that could doom Houston, and that might be difficult to overcome against Texas Tech’s offense.
While both teams should flourish in the passing game, the Red Raiders have the edge as far as things go on the ground. Texas Tech’s offensive line is one of the more unheralded units in the Big 12. Even if skill position players receive the bulk of the glory in a shootout, this line will be the reason the Red Raiders light up the scoreboard.
Texas Tech’s defense was a bit of a roller coaster last year, but the experience of the unit and the addition of viable grad transfers also give Texas Tech the edge at NRG Stadium.
Prediction: Texas Tech 42, Houston 33