The Houston Cougars have quietly kept winning games all year long. They’re now 9-0 and poised to make a move at the getting an automatic bid to one of the six major bowl games played on December 31-January 1. From the perspective of sports bettors, Houston has been good to us, covering the spread in six of their nine games. Now they get to play some spotlight games that will be fun to watch and fun to wager on. The first one is Saturday night at home against Memphis (7 PM ET, ESPN2).
Houston has flirted with some national prominence in the past, and always on the strength of a prolific quarterback and a high-scoring offense akin to what we say in the Big 12. In recent years we’ve seen it with Case Keenum. Some of us can turn back the clock and remember when it was David Klingler or Heisman Trophy-winning Andre Ware blowing out the scoreboard lights. But this Cougar team is different.
Now it’s about running the football in Houston and both quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and running back Kenneth Farrow are adept carrying the ball. The Cougars have consistently dominated rushing yardage totals throughout the season. Their first big win, a 34-31 upset at Louisville on September 12 as a (+13) underdog was keyed by a 226-70 advantage on the ground.
The pattern has held throughout this magical season under first-year head coach Tom Herman. Houston rolls up the yardage on the ground and for the most part, they’ve done good job defending the run. There have been some trouble spots—SMU got them for 151 yards, but the Cougars control the trenches.
A byproduct of this is that Houston consistently wins the turnover battle. Running the ball is the safest way to travel, and when you can do it while your opponents can’t, it stands to reason that they’ll be the ones making the most mistakes.
This emphasis on the run doesn’t mean the Cougars can’t throw the ball though. Ward has a 70 percent completion rate and that has not come at the expense of big plays. The Houston quarterback generates an outstanding 9.1 yards-per-attempt, with his primary target of wide receiver Demarcus Ayers. This is going to be an important part of Houston’s game going forward. In two weeks they play Navy on Black Friday, and no one is going to beat the Midshipmen in a battle of ground games. The Cougars can bring some versatility to the table.
Houston’s ability to run and stop the run while still keeping an open offense has led to them not only being a good ATS bet, but being outstanding on the road. The Cougars have played four road games and covered all of them. That includes games like Louisville where they were a hefty underdog. It includes games like Tulane and Central Florida when the Cougars gave three touchdowns. You name the ATS situation, they’ve met the challenge.
The challenges are getting bigger now and the stakes are higher. Houston, Memphis, Navy and Temple—all in the American Athletic Conference—are packed right on top of each in the College Football Playoff Committee rankings, ranging from 18 to 24. The highest-ranked team at the end gets the automatic New Year’s bowl bid reserved for the best “Little Five” team (the non-major conferences of the American, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American & Sun Belt).
November pressure does strange things to a football team—a phenomena we see among teams competing for a spot in the four-team Playoff. Teams can lose their identity. Players stop worrying about simply doing their job (to paraphrase Bill Belichick) and worry about whether their team is generating “style points” to impress a Committee. We need to see how Houston will respond to that, along with Memphis, Navy and Temple.
Houston is worth continuing to keep an eye on, although we have to watch pointspread movement carefully to see when their newfound good fortune results in a loss of value on the number. The Cougars’ best players are on the defensive side of the football and primarily in the secondary, led by corner William Jackson and free safety Trevon Stewart. Defense is what helps teams get through nervous situations and there’s going to be plenty ahead for the Cougars.
And don’t lose sight of the other contenders in the American conference, one of whom will be playing a marquee bowl game that we’ll want to have a bet on…
*Temple is 8-1 overall and 7-2 ATS, another talented defensive team led by linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
*Navy is 7-1 overall, 6-2 ATS and knocked off unbeaten Memphis last week with their triple-option running game led by incomparable Keenan Reynolds.
*And speaking of Memphis—they were in the mix for a Playoff spot before the Navy loss and are still 8-1 overall. The Tigers haven’t been as good at the betting window though at 4-4-1 ATS.
Even if you don’t want to step into action on Houston or any of the three other teams just yet, the time to do so in bowl games isn’t far off. Their biggest games are still mostly ahead in November and it starts Saturday night with Houston and Memphis.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.