The Houston Cougars may be ramping up for a new conference, but they won’t need to venture into much unfamiliar territory in 2023. Houston leaves the state of Texas just twice in their inaugural Big 12 slate, traveling to Kansas State and then closing the season out in Florida against UCF.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen hopes that renewing storied Southwest Conference rivalries with the likes of Texas Tech, Baylor and Texas will spark a Houston team which underperformed in their final season in the American Athletic Conference. Holgorsen was tabbed as the man to transition the Cougars to Power Five football when he took a hefty salary in 2019, and now he’ll get the chance to show just how much improvement Houston has made in his tenure.
2022 record: 8–5
2023 record prediction: 5–7
BIGGEST GAME: vs. Texas on Oct. 21
Houston has waited two decades for the chance to host Texas, their former Southwest Conference foe, and they’ll get one chance this season before the Longhorns bolt to the SEC. Two things are certain come game day: TDECU Stadium will be sold out, and there will be plenty of burnt orange shirts in the crowd.
The Cougars will need a superb defensive effort if they want to clinch bragging rights between the two programs until the next round of realignment. Texas’ passing game will be its strength behind returning quarterback Quinn Ewers and his favorite targets, Xavier Worthy and Ja’Tavion Sanders. Houston’s secondary was porous last season, ranking 122nd in passing yards allowed and surrendering over 420 total yards per game.
But 6-foot-3-inch cornerback Moses Alexander, a former top-five JUCO recruit who sat out last season, enters the Cougars’ lineup, as does four-year veteran and Oklahoma transfer David Ugwoegbu on the line. Ugwoegbu and returning starter Nelson Caeser will need to pressure Ewers into poor decisions and force costly turnovers if they’re to pull the upset.
Ugwoegbu isn't the only player on Houston's roster with experience facing Texas. Presumed starting quarterback Donovan Smith beat the Longhorns last year, throwing for 331 yards in an overtime win when he was with Texas Tech.
Trap Game: vs. West Virginia on Oct. 12
Make no mistake about it, Houston should win this game. West Virginia has stagnated to a 22–25 record in Neal Brown’s four seasons, and a bare roster projects to plummet them to the bottom of the 14-team Big 12 standings come season's end. But it’s impossible to imagine this matchup not getting at least a little weird.
For starters, it’s on a Thursday night to open up Week Seven of the college football season. Houston will also be coming off a bye week. Then, there’s the matter of the Holgorsen storylines that are sure to fly around in the days before kickoff. Holgorsen pioneered some of the Mountaineers most explosive offenses during his tenure from 2011-18 and is currently second in school history for career wins.
Holgorsen must have his team razor-focused on the task at hand come Thursday evening, considering it’d be easy for the Cougars to overlook a game sandwiched in between games against Texas Tech and Texas.
Potential Upset: vs. TCU on Sept. 16
TCU is the reigning national runner-up, but the 2023 iteration looks nothing like the team who shocked Michigan in the College Football Playoff. The Horned Frogs must replace Max Duggan at quarterback, leading rusher Kendre Miller, NFL first round wideout Quentin Johnston and two of their best offensive linemen. That’s a lot of new faces to get situated by the time it makes its first road trip to Houston in Week Three.
Houston might catch TCU at the right time of the season. The Cougars have a nice ramp up with an opener against ever-tough UTSA and an improved Rice, while the Horned Frogs play a Colorado team that won’t have an identity yet and a snoozer against Nicholls State. Sure, TCU could turn in a solid season in year two of the Sonny Dykes era, but they won’t be a near finished product in the middle of September.
Houston lost 1,398-yard receiver Nathaniel Dell, but they have a bevy of talented playmakers in Matthew Golden, Sam Brown and Joseph Manjack IV who can wreak havoc on a TCU secondary that’ll still be looking for an answer to replace Thorpe Award winner Trevius Hodges-Tomlinson.
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