SMU at Houston

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Thursday night college football returns with an American Athletic Conference West division battle between SMU and Houston.

SMU has been the surprise AAC leader so far while a Houston squad that has been among the most prominent teams since the conference’s origin in 2015 but has had setbacks on-and-off the field in 2019 as the spread on this game has swung four touchdowns from last season.

SMU Mustangs at Houston Cougars

Venue: At TDECU Stadium in Houston, Texas
Time/TV: Thursday, October 24, 7:30 p.m. ET ESPN
Line: SMU -14½, Over/Under 65½
Last Meeting: 2018, at SMU (+14) 45, Houston 31

The AAC has produced an undefeated champion the past two seasons and while many felt that UCF’s reign could be threatened this season, most suggested that Memphis or Cincinnati would be the contenders that could move up to the top of the conference. SMU is the last undefeated team standing in the conference at 7-0 though there remains plenty of work to do for the Mustangs to even seal the West division title with a difficult November schedule ahead.

Sonny Dykes got his head coaching start at Louisiana Tech after being a long-time assistant at Texas Tech under Mike Leach and then at Arizona under Mike Stoops. He took over at California for four seasons with only one positive campaign and his start at SMU was a disaster, taking over for the Frisco Bowl in 2017 with a limited roster and coaching staff in a humiliating 51-10 result against the Louisiana Tech program he formerly coached. In 2018 the Mustangs were a competitive 5-7 squad that came up short in the final two games with a bowl bid on the line but SMU has already earned a postseason spot this season.

Shane Buechele has been a star quarterback for the Mustangs with the junior transferring after two plus seasons at Texas after ultimately losing the job to Sam Ehlinger. He has already thrown for more than 2,000 yards this season with 18 touchdowns while SMU also has more than 750 rushing yards from Xavier Jones. James Proche has been the team’s go-to receiver with 54 catches while Reggie Roberson has nearly 800 receiving yards on a staggering 18.9 yards per catch as the big-play threat.

The SMU defense lacks great numbers with at least 21 points allowed in all but one game this season but 37 points scored for the Mustangs in the season opener has been the low mark for the offense. The perfect start has come with a few close calls holding off a comeback bid at Arkansas State in August in seven-point win while also narrowly winning by three at TCU for a marquee result early in the season. SMU needed triple-overtime to beat Tulsa at home in early October with an incredible rally after trailing 30-9 to start the fourth quarter.

In addition to this road game, SMU is at Memphis next week while playing at Navy in late November while the home finale with Tulane could also be a dangerous game. Navy, Memphis, and Tulane each have just one conference loss and remain viable threats in the AAC West.

Houston is in a transition season with Dana Holgorsen taking over the program after modest success over eight seasons at West Virginia. Holgorsen was an assistant at Houston for two years in 2008 and 2009 and surprised many by jumping down to the smaller conference program after Major Applewhite was let go after two seasons. Houston gave Holgorsen a five-year deal worth $20 million as he is by a wide margin the highest paid Group of 5 head coach in the nation.

Houston quarterback D’Eriq King accounted for 50 touchdowns last season as Holgorsen was expected to inherit a quality team that would compete well right away. A tough September schedule led to a 1-3 start having to face Oklahoma and Washington State while losing the conference opener with Tulane in a wild finish. King opted to take advantage of the redshirt rules and sit out the rest of the season. Backup Clayton Tune played in several games last season but wound up injured in Houston’s loss to Cincinnati, his second game starting after taking over for King. That left Holgorsen’s son Logan to take over and despite modest production he did lead the Cougars past Connecticut last week, though by just seven points playing as a heavy favorite against one of the nation’s worst FBS teams.

Houston had only 284 yards of offense against Connecticut last week but was able to pull away with a 58-yard touchdown to break a 10-10 tie late in the third quarter. At 3-4 Holgorsen has little chance to match the marginal 8-5 campaign that got Applewhite fired last season and Houston might not be favored in any of the remaining games with a schedule that includes UCF and Memphis in the first two November tests. Tune seems to have a chance to return this week as he has been practicing at a limited level as he rehabs his hamstring. Houston also has injuries on the offensive line and linebacker corps while running back Patrick Carr is not expected to be ready to return this week.

Chances are these teams aren’t as far apart as the current records as Houston has faced a much more difficult schedule but it doesn’t appear likely that Houston’s roster will resemble the outfit that didn’t look out of place vs. quality power five teams early in the year. On a short week after last week’s convincing win over Temple this is a potentially dangerous game for SMU with Memphis next week however, a game that could ultimately decide the division title.

SMU put up 655 yards to 273 for Temple last week in a dominant showing against an Owls defense that beat Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Memphis as that will be a difficult performance for the Mustangs to match. SMU is now ranked 16th in the nation and will have a target on its back, particularly against a Houston squad that was upset by the Mustangs last season.

Last season:

A 3-5 SMU squad had played to overtime with Cincinnati the previous week before facing Houston at home, with the Cougars 7-1 on the season with at least 41 points scored in every single game. They didn’t reach that mark in this game as SMU jumped out to a 17-0 lead and led 31-14 at halftime after scoring a touchdown in the final seconds before the break, with one of Houston’s touchdowns coming on defense. The Cougars would close to within seven in the fourth quarter but mainly behind running behind Ke’Mon Freeman, SMU had a lengthy drive to put the game away inside of three minutes. SMU had a 514-365 edge in yardage with the main disparity in the passing game.

Historical Trends:

Houston is 18-10-1 S/U but just 14-14 ATS in this series since 1980 with SMU winning the past two home meetings but last winning in Houston in 2005. SMU is 1-4 ATS as a double-digit road favorite with two S/U losses going back to 1997, while only once being this big of a road favorite since 2012. Houston has covered in three of the past four games as a home underdog with two S/U wins going back to 2013, winning 36-10 vs. Louisville in 2016 in the last instance playing as this big of a home underdog.