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Houston v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

For the third and final time this season, Baylor Football takes on a new conference foe, but this time, it’s also an old conference foe. The University of Houston joined the Southwest Conference in 1976, and the two schools less than 200 miles apart played each other every year since. Well, they did until the Big 12 formed, with Baylor receiving an invitation and Houston getting relegated to Conference USA.

Baylor narrowly leads the series with 14 wins to 13 losses; however, neither team has an advantage this season with each sitting at 3 and 5.

Houston in 2023

Houston’s had an up-and-down (but mostly down) season so far. A season-opening three-point win against UTSA was followed up with a two-point loss to Rice and thirteen-point loss to TCU. Wins over Sam Houston State and West Virginia (their lone conference win) broke up losses to Texas Tech, the University of Texas, and Kansas State. The latter was notable for the lopsided score...41-0.

To be blunt, Houston is mediocre on offense and near the bottom of the country in defense (but to be fair, both can also be said about Baylor).

On offense, Houston ranks 70th in the country with 25.3 points per game against FBS opponents and 77th in the country with a 40.8% success rate against FBS opponents. Given who their head coach is, it should come as no surprise that Houston relies heavily on the passing game. The Cougars throw the ball on 57% of plays (17th in the country), but their success rate is pretty similar regardless of whether they are airing it out or keeping the ball on the ground.

Defensively, Houston ranks 106th in the country with 32.5 points allowed per game against FBS opponents and 108th in the country with a 44% success rate allowed against FBS opponents. As on the offensive side of the ball, Houston is practically the same defending against the pass or against the run, at least in terms of success rate. A couple particularly bad stats for the Cougars are their red zone scoring percentage allowed (90%!) and third down conversion percentage allowed (48%).

Perhaps this is just the team that Baylor, currently ranked 120th in the country in red zone scoring percentage, needs to boost their confidence. Alternatively, if Baylor can’t score against Houston...

Houston players to watch

The offensive star of the show is without a doubt Texas Tech transfer #1 Donovan Smith. The junior quarterback already has over 2,000 passing yards and leads the team with 78 carries. He’s also responsible for 20 touchdowns, including a team-high four on the ground. If it weren’t for sack yards, he’d be near the top of the team in rushing yards, too. Unfortunately for the Cougars, he’s also responsible for nine turnovers: five interceptions and four fumbles.

Given their reliance on throwing the ball, it should come as no surprise that a wide receiver makes the “players to watch list”; it might surprise you to see three different names, though. Each of the three starting receives lead the team in at least one dimension. Sophomore #4 Samuel Brown is number one in targets (66), receptions (45), receiving yards (678), and yards per reception (15.1). Junior #2 Matthew Golden is the top scoring receiver with six touchdowns. Finally, junior #0 Joseph Manjack IV has the highest expected points added per play against FBS opponents and highest receiving grade on Pro Football Focus.

Worth noting about Manjack IV — he is listed as questionable for the game against Baylor after missing Houston’s shutout loss to Kansas State. However, he predominately plays in the slot, which we know is an area of weakness for Baylor. If he plays, I expect him to have a big game.

Turning to the other side of the ball, Baylor’s offensive line needs to keep an eye at all times on defensive end #9 Nelson Ceaser. PFF credits Ceaser with a team-high 21 QB pressures and six sacks. There’s a little bit of a drop-off after Ceaser and the next most productive pass rushers, but this is a good opportunity for Anthony Holmes Jr. and David Ugwoegbu to buff their stats.

In coverage, Houston’s most reliable defender is cornerback #23 Isaiah Hamilton. The Texas Southern transfer is tied with safety Malik Fleming with three interceptions, but the former is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 59% completion percentage, 59.4 NFL passer rating, and a respectable 10.5 yards per reception. He’s not the highest rated man in coverage according to PFF (that distinction belongs to the aforementioned edge defender Nelson Ceaser), but Hamilton is the highest rated player whose primary job is pass coverage.

Overall thoughts

Houston is the worst team remaining on our schedule. If we lose this game, in all expectation we end the season without another win. If, however, we take care of business at home, we can keep our bowl hopes alive, no matter how slim.

ESPN’s FPI gives Baylor a 46% chance of winning the game. Bill Connelly’s SP+ actually predicts a narrow Baylor win — 30 to 29. Brian Fremeau’s FEI is the most bullish on the Bears, predicting a 30 to 27 Baylor win.

This is not going to be a pretty game. I think Baylor’s defense gives Houston a shot of adrenaline and the Cougars win 30 to 28. Here’s hoping I’m wrong!