(3) Oklahoma Sooners (-11.5, 68 o/u) vs. (15) Houston Cougars
If you watch football for one-yard fullback dives and hard-nosed defense, then this is not a matchup for you. However, if you want to see top-tier quarterback play and a lot of points, then look no further than Saturday’s Week 1 meeting between the no. 3 Oklahoma Sooners and no. 15 Houston Cougars at NRG Stadium in Houston (12:00 PM Eastern, September 3).
The visiting Sooners (11-2 SU, 9-4 ATS in 2015) are coming off a successful season, which saw them finish with the best record in the Big 12 and earn a berth in the College Football Playoffs. Unfortunately, their playoff run ended quickly at the hands of no. 1 Clemson in the semifinals.
But 2016 is no time for Oklahoma to dwell on the past; they return the majority of their key contributors from last season and are set to make another run at a national championship. The two most notable returnees are quarterback Baker Mayfield (3,700 passing yards, 36 TDs, seven INTs, and seven rushing touchdowns), whose name you’ll find in every Heisman watch-list and junior running back Samaje Perine (1,349 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, and 17 total TDs).
Mayfield and the Sooners will, however, have to go forth without leading receiver Sterling Shepard and third-leading receiver Durron Neal. The Sooners will look to senior Dede Westbrook (46 receptions, 743 yards, and four TDs) to lead the wideouts, and hope that underclassmen Jeffery Mead and Mark Andrews can contribute.
The Sooners averaged 43.5 points per game in 2015, and with Mayfield and Perine back, they may improve upon that impressive number. However, their defense – which allowed a repectable 22 points per game last year – could take a hit in 2016. Gone is leading tackler Dominique Alexander, the two men who tied for the team-lead in sacks (Charles Tapper and Eric Striker), as well as top corner Zack Sanchez. The Big 12 champions will need senior linebacker Jordan Evans to step up in a big way and lead this defense, as the rest of the linebacking corps is very inexperienced.
Looking to take advantage of the Sooners’ defensive losses will be Houston’s senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr Not only did Ward post decent passing stats last year (2,827 passing yards, 17 passing TDs, six INTs), he was also the Cougars’ leading rusher (1,114 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns).
Ward and the Cougars (13-1 SU, 9-5 ATS in 2015) tied the school record for wins in a season last year, and capped it off by upsetting no. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl (38-24). The commanding victory would propel the Cougars up the rankings, finishing the season at no. 8, after not even being worthy of a spot in the top-25 until Week 7.
Houston’s offense was not far behind Oklahoma’s, putting up 40.4 points per game in 2015. But the Cougars will have a much different skill group surrounding their star quarterback this season. Top running back Kenneth Farrow and leading receiver Demarcus Ayers will not be suiting up for Houston in 2016. Instead, they’ll be relying on sophomore transfer Duke Catalon to pound the rock when Ward needs a blow, and senior receiver Chance Allen will have to be ready for a ton of targets as junior receiver Ra’Shaad Samples will miss Week 1 with a concussion.
The Cougars also lost a number of key contributors on the defensive side of the ball, most notably corner William Jackson III and leading tackler Elandon Roberts.
Last year in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma struggled mightily to slow down Clemson’s mobile, dual-threat QB, Deshaun Watson. Watson ran for 145 yards and a touchdown in a game that turned into a rout. Watson is a special kind of talent, but so is the quarterback the Sooners will face in Week 1. And Oklahoma will be playing with a lot of new faces on defense.
I have no doubt Baker Mayfield and the Sooners offense will put up a ton of points too. The Cougars defense may have only given up 20.7 points per game last season, but that’s only because they play in a weak AAC conference. Take the over in this matchup of heavyweight offenses.
Pick: Over (68)
Photo Credit: Julie Lazalier Harvey [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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