- Time and date: Saturday, September 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: FOX
- Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
- Spread: TCU (-7.5)
- Over/under: 64.5
- All-time series: Houston leads, 13-12
- Last meeting: TCU 20, Houston 13 — December 28, 2007 (Texas Bowl)
- Current streak: TCU, 8 (1993-07)
The first-ever Big 12 matchup in Houston
For the first time ever, TDECU Stadium is opening its gates for a Big 12 showdown. The Houston Cougars’ inaugural Big 12 matchup transpires almost exactly two years after they were added to the league on Sept. 10, 2021. Fresh off hosting its most attended home game since 2017, Houston expects a raucous environment for a nationally televised primetime matchup against a Big 12 power.
“The festivities, the events, the excitement — that’s really exciting for the University of Houston,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It’s exciting for the students and our fanbase, and all that stuff’s great, but coaches and players, they put their head down and they work. We need to put our head down and go to work and focus on TCU and being as prepared as we possibly can to play a really, really good football team.”
This is a moment years in the making. Since Houston first learned of its Big 12 admission, the Cougars have recruited bigger in terms of size and better in terms of stars — all in preparation to compete in this new conference. But Holgorsen understands that this transition season is by no means a finished product of what Houston should look like in the league for years to come. Still, the goal of emerging victorious at home remains the same.
“We’ve been recruiting toward Big 12 for two years,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve been able to sell that. Our body types have improved. Our talent has improved. But we’re still a work in progress. We’ve got a long ways to go. I know that. Our team knows that. Our administration knows that. Nobody cares about that in the same breath. Our job’s to line up and play good this weekend. It’s going to be a huge challenge. We have to line up and play better, and I think we will.”
TCU head coach Sonny Dykes understands what’s in front of his team. As a reigning national championship game qualifier, the Horned Frogs will have a target on their back all year when pitted against Big 12 competition. Combine Houston’s eagerness for its first Big 12 matchup with fuel from a Week 2 loss, and the result is an incredibly hungry team TCU must stave off on the road.
“Houston’s gonna come out and play as well as they’re gonna play probably all year,” TCU Dykes said in his weekly press conference. “They’re gonna be disappointed in their performance versus Rice. They’re gonna be excited about the first Big 12 game in their stadium. There’s gonna be a lot of reasons for those guys to be highly motivated.”
Rebounding from Rice
After packing TDECU Stadium and manufacturing an electric environment Week 1 against UTSA, the energy within the Houston fanbase took a sudden nosedive last Saturday. The Cougars snapped a 7-game win streak to crosstown rival Rice, losing possession of the Bayou Bucket for the first time since 2010. That stunning loss dampers the spectacular start the Cougars had to the 2023 season.
“Unfortunately we stubbed our toe and didn’t take care of business last week,” Holgorsen said. “It’s not acceptable which puts a little bit of a black cloud above where we’re at right now, which is unfortunate, because we’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. I encourage people to hang in there and support our players.”
Holgorsen’s primary emphasis this week is starting faster. It’s a concept Houston struggled with early last season, scoring zero first quarter points and 10 first half points in its first two games. Through two contests this season, the Cougars have only notched two first half touchdowns, being outscored by opponents 35-17 before halftime. After falling behind 28-0 last week, Holgorsen hopes the momentum gained in the second half will sustain through the Big 12 opener against TCU.
“I think we’re gonna respond okay,” Holgorsen said. “Kids are pretty resilient now. Kids are way more resilient than I am and coaches and fanbase and stuff like that. I would anticipate them coming in in the right frame of mind. Everybody was pretty embarrassed and pretty quiet for what happened. I think our guys will be ready to play.”
Reloading to national championship caliber
In 2022, TCU cleared through its entire regular season schedule unscathed. The Horned Frogs became the first team in the College Football Playoff era to enter the Big 12 Championship with a spotless 12-0 record. But that will not be replicated this season in Fort Worth.
As heavy favorites against Colorado, TCU dropped its home opener in a 45-42 shootout, starting the team at 0-1 on the season. Yet, Dykes doesn’t believe this iteration of the team is starting far different from his 2022 squad that participated in the national championship game. Although the imperfect record adds a challenge to qualifying for the CFP, the second-year coach believes a similar trajectory is possible with this year’s squad.
“Honestly, our performance so far this season has probably mirrored our performance a little bit last season,” Dykes said. “We played a really good Colorado team Week 1. If we played a really good Colorado team last year, I don’t know how we would have fared in that game. We’re still trying to find our way, and I think we’re headed in the right direction, and I like our sense of urgency to get there.”
Improved leadership within the roster is one element Dykes hopes to see going forward. The Horned Frogs lost eight offensive starters and three defensive starters from last year’s CFP-bound team, including Heisman finalist quarterback Max Duggan, first round draft pick Quentin Johnson, and Jim Thorpe Award winner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson. If similar leadership can emerge among this revamped roster, perhaps the results can follow.
“Three or four games last year, we were probably a slightly below-average football team and we just kept working,” Dykes said. “We had tremendous buy-in and leadership and had some guys that stepped up. We were finding our way along last year, and I think we’re doing that this year with a lot of new players.”
Houston quarterback Donovan Smith now has two starts in a Cougar uniform under his belt. The Texas Tech transfer is averaging 246.5 passing yards per game, complete with four passing touchdowns and one interception. While the explosiveness is yet to come, the quarterback is remaining relatively mistake-free as a passer. And as a runner, the 6’5”, 241 pound force has starred in short-yardage situations, picking up three rushing touchdowns in last week’s double overtime thriller against Rice.
Holgorsen believes his unflappable demeanor has been on full display thus far.
“I thought he did well, after he settled in — first couple drives weren’t good — there was a lot that wasn’t good early and that thing started snowballing, but Donovan hung in there,” Holgorsen said. “Nothing rattles him. Nothing bothers him. He hung in there and played a much better second half.
TCU has a similar situation on its hands, developing Chandler Morris as a full-time starter. Like Smith, the sophomore presents some starting experience, knocking off eventual Big 12 champion Baylor in 2021 and winning the starting job in 2022 fall camp. Still, he’s settling into the role and showed marked improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, completing 26-of-30 passes for 263 yards, while running for 63 on the side against Nicholls of the FCS.
“He did a really good job last week taking care of the ball. He had zero turnovers. He threw it 30 times and really made good decisions, never panicked, was much more comfortable, did a better job running. I think he’s starting to figure out those things — when should I run, when should I not run, how should I run — all that takes a little time to figure out as a starting quarterback. More than anything with him, it’s just getting comfortable and getting confident.”
Key matchups to watch
Holgorsen is well-acquainted with TCU’s schemes due to past matchups against both coordinators. TCU’s third-year defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie previously shared the AAC with the Cougars during his time at Tulsa, while first-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles formerly served at Baylor, where he’d battle a Holgorsen-led West Virginia on an annual basis in the mid-2010s.
“I’m familiar with their schemes are and what they’re doing, but that doesn’t make it any easier to play against,” Holgorsen said. “They play a lot of up-tempo on offense and they’re a drop eight team on defense, which makes things challenging. They’re a good team. They’re a little different than what they were last year — not defensively, not with their body types, not with how they play. A little different offensively, but overall, it’s the same people.”
Conversely, Dykes is extremely familiar with the Cougars. With previous stops of Louisiana Tech and SMU, the TCU head coach battled Houston on six previous occasions, splitting the matchups with a 3-3 record. Two of those games featured Holgorsen on the opposite sideline, and both were settled by one possession in a high-scoring manner. But prior to Houston joining the Big 12, the Cougars and Horned Frogs were quite distant, having last met in the 2007 Texas Bowl.
“Our guys have never played a game in Houston, but we can watch film,” Dykes said. “It’ll be a challenge for us. Any time you go on the road and played some place you’ve never really played before, there’s a little bit of uncertainty. But at the same time, our guys are starting to develop confidence and get a feeling of who we are.”
TCU wide receivers vs. Houston secondary
In 2022, TCU belonged in conversations for best receiving corps in the country alongside programs like Ohio State and Washington. Replacing the likes of Quentin Johnston, Derius Davis, and Taye Barber wasn’t going to be an easy task — especially with a new quarterback — but the Horned Frogs are making progress.
That progress starts with health. Starting receivers Savion Williams and Dylan Wright are expected to return Saturday after missing the Houston game. The other starting receiver, Oklahoma State transfer JP Richardson, returns to the lineup after leaving last Saturday’s contest with an injury.
“It starts with getting a bunch of guys back,” Dykes said. “This is honestly the first time this year we’ve gone into a ballgame with all the guys. We’re healthy and we’re looking forward to seeing what a week’s work of practice yields.”
TCU’s wide receiving corps is pitted against a Houston secondary which has provided mixed results thus far. In Week 1, the Cougars shut down UTSA star quarterback Frank Harris, notching three interceptions and forcing a 50 percent completion rate. Cornerback Malik Fleming was the dangerous coverage specialist and return man at the forefront of it all with two interceptions and three solo tackles.
Last Saturday, Houston surrendered 401 passing yards to Rice. FCS transfer cornerback Isaiah Hamilton emerged as a playmaker, forcing two turnovers, and his downfield coverage ability will play a big role in determining Saturday’s outcome.
“He’s played a lot of ball. He’s very talented. He can make plays,” Holgorsen said. “The interception in the end zone was awesome — made a play on that ball and got that pick. When he forced the fumble, he was playing from behind because he got beat so bad. He’s got to tighten up the coverage. He’s capable of much better coverage than what I saw on that play. With that said, he punched it in there. He’s got a knack for doing that. We didn’t have a lot of guys like that that could make plays last year... but he’s got that playmaking ability. He needs to tighten his coverage up a little bit.”
Perhaps the greatest difference between playing an AAC schedule versus running through a Big 12 slate is the size in the trenches. The size of Big 12 linemen was well-documented within Houston’s program when studying how to recruit as members of a new conference. TCU presents a handful of challenges on both sides of the equation. The offensive line is one of seven in the FBS yet to allow a sack in 2023, while the defensive line is tied for 16th in the country with 3.5 sacks per game.
“I’m anxious to watch it. They’re big. Body types are big. Their o-line is big,” Holgorsen said. “They haven’t given up a sack and they’ve only had three TFLs in two games. And they run the ball a lot. D-line, they’re stout, so their body types are Big 12 body types. I’m anxious to see how they stack up. Last year against Texas Tech it was the same kind of question mark — how are we gonna stack up? I thought from an up front perspective, o-line and d-line, we held our own.”
Houston’s defensive line established the nickname “Sack Ave.” several years ago after the unit’s impressive ability to take down opposing quarterbacks. The Cougars have been quite stellar in the pass rush for years, producing several high NFL Draft picks along the way. But through two games in 2023, the Cougars are only posting 1.5 sacks per contest. Operating without nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo has certainly factored into this. Nwankwo’s return date is unclear, but still, defensive end Nelson Ceaser is doing his part with all three sacks on the season. Now, the rest of the defensive line must join Sack Ave.
“When you play Houston, historically, this is one of the things they’ve been really good at is taking the ball away from offense and creating turnovers,” Dykes said. “Pressuring people — when you look at their defense — that’s what they do pretty consistently is put pressure on you. When you drop back and try to throw, they have a good pass rush — guys on the edge that can really rush and some guys who can push the pocket inside.”
TCU hopes to play the role of Brutus and prevent Ceaser from dominating. In a refurbished offense, the Horned Frogs’ veteran leadership resides within the offensive line as left tackle Andrew Coker and left guard Brandon Coleman are two of just three returning starters from last year’s Fiesta Bowl champion offense. Those captains — which play much more significant roles this year — hope to keep TCU sack free on the season while paving the way for a rushing attack currently 39th in yards per game.
“Coker and Coleman are guys who are captains, and they’re starting to figure out what leadership looks like,” Dykes said. “That’s hard sometimes because it sets you apart from all the guys on your team, and when you’re a really strong leader, you kind of step outside the team in some ways. That’s really hard for young people to do. They like to confirm. It’s a process to get there, but I do like what I’m seeing.”
Key player to watch
Matthew Golden, WR, Houston: Golden was one of Houston’s prized recruit from the 2022 class. As a true freshman last season, he emerged as one of the main options toward the end of the year with 584 yards and seven touchdowns. This offseason, Houston lost the nation’s reigning receiving yards leader Tank Dell to the NFL Draft, with Golden as the expected successor. While Golden has remained quiet with 96 yards through two games, he has asserted himself near the goal line with three touchdowns. The sophomore presents tremendous separation for goal line fades and other routes toward the sideline, and he’ll look to carve up a TCU secondary which allowed over 500 passing yards in Week 1.
Johnny Hodges, OLB, TCU: Hodges earned accolades galore last season. In his first season after transferring from Navy, the outside linebacker won Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year and qualified for Second Team All-Big 12 honors with 87 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. Hodges will be instrumental in stopping Houston’s run game and underneath routes. The 6’2”, 240 pound physical linebacker ranks second on the Horned Frogs in tackles with 17. Hodges was not shy about TCU’s defensive shortcomings in the Colorado opener, calling the team the “laughingstock of college football” in his postgame press conference, and the linebacker will do everything in his power to undo that designation.
Even after the debacle at Rice in Week 2, expect a fervent TDECU Stadium atmosphere to ring in Big 12 membership for the Houston Cougars. It’s an in-state opponent too, so plenty of purple should make the trip to spice up Houston’s first Big 12 crowd.
Both teams played at varying levels from Week 1 to Week 2, which makes this game challenging to get a read on. Houston hasn’t established itself as a dominant rushing attack in the Dana Holgorsen era, so the Cougars will likely have to consult the air early and often for a stronger offensive output in this one. Producing more than one first half touchdown will be a requisite of winning, so a faster start is absolutely essential for Donovan Smith and that offense.
TCU’s defense struggled mightily in Week 1, but perhaps keeping an FCS opponent out of the end zone is a major confidence-booster heading into Week 3. The Horned Frogs will bring a similar style to that of Houston offensively, but with a little more tempo sprinkled in. The difference in this game comes down to TCU’s ability to run the football, so running backs Emani Bailey and Trey Sanders could be in for stellar days if Houston’s shorthanded defensive line doesn’t apply enough pressure in the backfield.
This one will remain close throughout, but the reigning College Football Playoff qualifiers find a way to emerge in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: TCU 33, Houston 24