Despite long having programs in the same region, Houston and Oklahoma have nearly no history as football competitors, much less as rivals.
For years, the Sooners were in the Big 8 and venturing south now and again, but to play Southwest Conference schools like Texas or Texas A&M. The two-game history of UH-OU is merely a pair of Oklahoma victories, the most recent a a 63-13 thrashing in 2004. The mid-major Cougars went 3-8 that year.
Things are slightly different in 2016, as the winner will surely have a top-five ranking in the polls heading into week 2.
On one side, the situation is fairly typical, with the Sooners coming off a Playoff trip and widely projected to repeat as Big 12 champions.
On the other, the Cougars just went 13-1 and took down Florida State in the Peach Bowl, then became the popular pick to top the non-power group again.
The legacy will meet the upstart at the Houston Texans' NRG Stadium in one of the season’s biggest-ticket early games. With a lot of talent, coaching acumen and storylines, it’s going to be good.
1. One glaring subplot: Houston has a chance to prove it can compete against the Big 12's best.
The Cougars are among several teams hoping to join the conference within the next few years, and recent football quality is one of their biggest selling points. A win against one of the region's biggest powers would leave little doubt about that claim.
2. The stars for both offenses include lots of transfer talent.
Both have seized upon an emerging strategy by loading up with impact players via the transfer, which has boosted both rosters and made both teams harder to predict in the long run.
Bob Stoops managed to solve some QB issues by welcoming Heisman contender Baker Mayfield after a solid freshman year at Texas Tech. Mayfield's successor might be A&M QB transfer Kyler Murray, whom the Aggies "traded" to Oklahoma for senior Trevor Knight.
Tom Herman has multiple transfers ready to step in after sitting out the 2015 season. Perhaps the most notable are Texas RB transfer Duke Catalon and Oklahoma State WR transfer Ra’Shaad Samples. Herman has praised Catalon as an outstanding and versatile back, coming up short only in comparison to Zeke Elliott, whom Herman coached at Ohio State. Samples is a 5'11 speedster who could replace NFL Draft pick Demarcus Ayers as the constraint weapon on the perimeter (the player who keeps defenses honest when they try to load up in the middle).
Given Houston’s losses in the secondary and Oklahoma’s losses in its defensive front, the game could be determined by players who started their careers elsewhere.
3. Both defenses have excellent units. Both also lost a lot elsewhere and have to get their feet wet against a scary offense in this game.
Oklahoma’s defensive losses are an overlooked factor in their Playoff run. Between defensive end Charles Tapper and outside linebackers Eric Striker and Devante Bond, the Sooners have to replace a trio that produced 36 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks in 2015.
The solution seems to be a 3-3-5 alignment that uses a single outside linebacker as the primary pass rusher. Redshirt junior Ogbonnia Okoronkwo looks to be the man to attempt that big challenge.
On the bright side for the Sooners, they return safeties Steven Parker and Ahmad Thomas, up-and-coming cornerback Jordan Thomas, nickel Will Johnson and rangy linebacker Jordan Evans. Their athleticism and versatility in the back seven (assuming Okoronkwo is blitzing) will be a major strength and should help the rush.
In Mike Stoops’ MOFC (middle of the field closed, i.e. a single deep safety) coverage concepts, they may be able to duplicate some of Ole Miss’ "pseudo-dime" approach and cause real problems for spread passing attacks.
The Cougars lose three-fifths of their starting secondary, including lockdown cornerback and NFL first-rounder William Jackson III.
The Cougars do return much of their defensive front, including attack backers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, who combined for 16.5 sacks last year. Returning linemen B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux should make for an imposing run front. The Cougars also add five-star freshman Ed Oliver, who could immediately disrupt in Houston’s stunt-heavy package.
If you combined Oklahoma’s returning secondary and Houston’s returning front, you might have the most devastating defense in college football.
4. So can either stop the other’s quarterback?
Mayfield and Houston's Greg Ward Jr. are both really good, but in different ways.
|395 passes for 3,700 yards
9.4 yards per attempt
36-7 TD-INT ratio
|102 carries for 430 yards
4.2 yards per carry
7 rushing TDs
|345 passes for 2,828 yards
8.2 yards per attempt
17-6 TD-INT ratio
|173 carries for 1,253 yards
7.2 yards per carry
21 rushing TDs
Both are undersized, mobile quarterbacks who have been excellent in the spread after flying beneath the radar as recruits. Both are especially potent, though, when they go off script.
Ward is capable enough in the Herman variety of a smashmouth spread. He makes good choices in the spread-option game, and he can execute Herman’s fairly simple passing attack. But his running ability, as both a scrambler and designated runner, makes him truly special.
The same is true for Mayfield, who is college football’s most recent master of the "scramble out of the pocket and hit a comeback for a first down" strategy. That makes him a complete menace on third down.
5. Stopping either is difficult, but there are examples of how to approach both.
Last year, TCU and Clemson laid out the road map for working against Mayfield.
The key to containing a scrambling QB is to keep him contained within the pocket while dropping defenders who can focus on getting depth and filling passing windows. At (maybe) 6’1, Mayfield struggles to see from the pocket, and if his escape routes are covered and the passing lanes occupied, it becomes difficult for him to make something happen:
Ward’s legs are more dangerous for the occasional scrambling or for Houston’s QB run game.
None of Houston’s opponents were able to fully lock down both elements of Ward’s game. He had at least 200 passing yards or 100 rushing yards in every full game he played last year, missing parts of two with injury. Florida State was able to contain Ward thanks to superior athleticism, but couldn’t totally stop him.
Oklahoma needs to rely on man coverage outside while loading the defensive box with a safety. Dare the Cougars to find a matchup in the passing game, or dare them to run against an eight-man front. Ward can still be a danger, however.
There’s not much the defense can do if the offense mixes in "dread-wing" plays like this, other than trying to tackle the QB as violently as possible and hope that the offense can't do this often and effectively enough.
That’s not a great bet. Oklahoma will have to get off blocks up front and tackle well enough to prevent Ward's legs from going off like they did against, say, Temple last year, when he ran 17 times for 148 yards against a good defense. Oklahoma has struggled against athletic quarterbacks before, including Texas’ Jerrod Heard and Clemson's Deshaun Watson last year.
For both teams, this is no joke.
Houston is going to challenge Oklahoma in areas where the Sooners flashed vulnerability in 2015, like defending against quarterback running games.
Oklahoma will have the majority of the game’s top athletes, though, and players of the caliber Houston isn’t completely used to facing.
It’s hard to say exactly how this is going to go. But it’s clear enough that whoever wins will be on the fast track to a big season, and whoever loses will be working out of a hole after just one game.
Oh, and the Big 12 thing.