Houston quarterback Greg Ward graced the cover of Sports Illustrated recently as a part of the magazine’s college football preseason edition. The premise of the article was that the Houston Cougars are out to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, that the revival under first-year coach Tom Herman wasn’t an accident.
The Cougars are out to show that last year’s 13-win season capped by a Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory against Florida State wasn’t just a lucky twist of fate.
They won’t have to wait long.
Saturday’s season opener against Oklahoma will define Houston’s season almost before it even starts. The Cougars return 12 starters but have a completely new defensive backfield and only five returners on the defensive side of the ball.
Like that Sports Illustrated story, everything still starts and ends with Ward – a dark horse Heisman candidate if the Cougars run to the College Football Playoff.
“Greg Ward is a tremendous player,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I think their skill is outstanding in a lot of ways. They make plays for him. They spread the field. They run the ball extremely well, and they can strike with some big plays. They’re a handful.”
Two key transfers at the skill positions – running back Duke Catalon (Texas) and receiver Ra'Shaad Samples (Oklahoma State) – should allow Houston’s offense to keep rolling. Samples might miss the season opener because of a concussion, which would be a load off Oklahoma’s mind.
The Sooners’ secondary has enough to handle with just the tempo of the Cougars’ offense.
“That’s true across the board now with all of the college offenses,” Oklahoma inside linebackers coach Tim Kish said. “They’re spread out with these athletic quarterbacks. You have to defend the entire field. So you have to have athletes that can do it. We respect all those guys that have that ability that cause us that problem. Houston will be the first task. It’s the only task we’re thinking of right now.”
The task is Ward, and it’s pretty simple: Stop him to stop Houston. He’ll be tough to completely stop though, because Houston isn’t an accident or a stroke of luck. The Cougars, who are playing just a couple miles away from campus. Will have every incentive and every bit of motivation to challenge the Sooners.
“Houston, they’re a great football team,” Oklahoma safety Steven Parker said. “We know that, and we know we have to come out and play. It’s not going to be a walk in the park or anything like that. It’s another game where we have to come out and strap our pads on, lace up our cleats, put our helmet on: Same old thing, same old ritual. We don’t sleep on anybody. Really, we’re just going to go out there and play our game.”