Since a catastrophic opening of the season that saw the Houston Cougars struggle to an 0-3 record, Tony Levine's squad has quietly climbed back to respectability. As they head up to SMU on Thursday, the Coogs sport a 3-3 record, including an all-important 2-0 mark in Conference USA play.
But after getting back to .500 against three relatively weak squads, the difficulty knob gets turned up a little in Dallas. The Mustangs were expected to be part of a three-way race for the C-USA west title this year along with UH and Tulsa, but things haven't worked out that way for June Jones' team. They lost their first two games against FCS opponents by a combined score of 107-27. Things started looking up after a respectable showing against rival TCU, and a road shutout victory over UTEP, but then came a stunning 27-26 loss to perennial cellar-dweller Tulane.
The SMU defense has come and gone, but the startling aspect of how the Mustangs have played is the absence of any sort of real offensive threat. Highly-touted quarterback transfer Garrett Gilbert has thrown for 11 interceptions, tied for the highest mark in the country. His 4.99 yards per pass attempt ranks dead last among FBS passers. (Ironically, second-to-last in that category is Sean Schroeder of Jones' former school, Hawaii.) Bruising running back Zach Line, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry and ran for 27 touchdowns as a sophomore and junior, has been held to just 4.7 yard per rush, and has found the end zone only three times in six games, largely thanks to an offensive line that suffered massive losses to graduation.
And let's not forget that Houston has won six straight contests against SMU, including all four in Jones' tenure as head coach. Interestingly, the only time that the Mustangs have managed to stay within three scores of the Coogs during that streak was during their 1-11 campaign in Jones' first season.
So wait, SMU is struggling and Houston has their number...is this really still a measuring stick game for Houston? Doesn't this look more like a creampuff of a game, ala Rice, UNT and UAB?
Not necessarily. As we've previously mentioned, Houston tends to struggle in games that it seems like it "should" win. And despite the Mustangs' struggles, there is talent on the SMU squad. If the Coogs don't dominate in the trenches (something they've done the last couple of games, but something that has rarely been the case in recent years), then the Ponies could see a resurgence in their offense. Zach Line is still Zach Line, and Gilbert will hit an open receiver now and then if he's not under pressure.
David Piland will need to have a good game, the Cougar receivers will need to continue their new-found ability to not drop passes, and a fourth-straight 100-yard rushing game from Charles Sims would certainly help. But the game will ultimately come down to that one match-up: Houston's front seven against SMU's offensive line. If Gilbert and Line are running for their lives all day, this is a blowout. If they have enough room to get comfortable, this game is going to be a lot closer than the Cougar faithful would like.
That's what makes this game - against a team that's talented, but that the Cougars should beat - such an interesting measuring stick of how far UH has come since the season-opening...well, you know.