Sept. 1 NCAA Football Picks and Preview — Houston (0-0) at No. 4 Oklahoma (0-0)

(D’Eriq King photo courtesy Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Sunday, Sept. 1, Memorial Stadium, Norman, Okla., 7:30 p.m. EDT.

If anyone can handle the stratospheric expectations that come with being the new quarterback at Oklahoma, it is Jalen Hurts.

The Alabama transfer looks to help the fourth-ranked Sooners produce an unprecedented third consecutive Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, starting with Sunday’s clash against Houston that marks Dana Holgorsen’s debut with the Cougars.

Hurts arrived in Norman this offseason after a challenging 2018 in which he lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts was a good teammate and made the most of his limited opportunities last season in completing 51 of 70 passes for 765 yards and eight touchdowns, but with Tagovailoa the unquestioned No. 1 by season’s end, Hurts sought a starting job elsewhere.

And Oklahoma may have been the best landing spot considering coach Lincoln Riley has produced Heisman winners and overall No. 1 NFL draft picks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray in the last two seasons. The Sooners’ high-octane offense led all FBS teams in scoring (48.4) and total yards (570.3) and was third in overall touchdowns (89).

Hurts has many of the same dual-threat capabilities that Riley developed in Murray — Hurts threw for 5,626 yards and 48 TDs while rushing for another 1,976 with the Crimson Tide while going 26-2 as a starter.

Holgorsen is quite familiar with Riley and Oklahoma, having coached at Big 12 rival West Virginia the past eight seasons before surprisingly taking the Cougars job in the offseason. The American Athletic Conference school made him the highest-paid coach in the “Group of 5” after signing him to a 5-year, $20 million contract, and this is Holgorsen’s second go-round at Houston — he was offensive coordinator in 2008-09 under Kevin Sumlin.

Holgorsen hopes change of scenery leads to first win over Sooners

Holgorsen is well-versed in facing Oklahoma, but beating them is an entirely different story. He failed to do that in his seven seasons as Big 12 rivals while in Morgantown, with West Virginia giving up an average of 47 points and 547.6 yards per game. The Mountaineers yielded 56 or more points in the last three matchups and 40 or more in all but one of those seven losses.

The good news is Holgorsen returns the most important piece of an offense that finished fifth in FBS in scoring (43.9 ppg) and seventh in total offense (512.5 ypg) — quarterback D’Eriq King.

One of the top dual threats in the nation, King threw for 2,982 yards and 36 touchdowns while rushing for another 674 yards and 14 scores. He is fully recovered from a knee injury in November that sidelined him for Houston’s final two games last season, including the Cougars’ humbling 70-14 loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

“I had to back him off a little bit,’’ Holgorsen told The American about his QB. “He’s a guy that wants to pull the trigger. He’s made comments to me that sometimes he feels like he needs to run a guy over to juice the team up. I was like, ‘No, you don’t need to do that. You need to get a first down and get out of bounds.’

“He probably won’t account for 50 touchdowns again,’’ Holgorsen said. “But hopefully we’ll score a lot more than that as a team.’’

King played a role in Houston’s upset of then-No. 3 Oklahoma in 2016, but as wide receiver after being pressed into duty there because of injuries. He caught three passes for 28 yards in the 33-23 home win and finished that season with 29 catches for 228 yards before eventually returning to the quarterback spot his sophomore season and being a full-time starter in 2018.

King’s top target will be Marquez Stevenson, who is coming off a 1,000-yard season that included a team-high 75 receptions. Houston’s other top two wideouts — Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark — are also back after combining for 75 catches, 1,230 yards and 15 TDs. The primary ground threat besides King is Patrick Carr, who had a team-high 873 yards.

Houston’s defense struggled to contain opponents last year, giving up 37.2 points per game, and needs to find a new leader with defensive end Ed Oliver in the NFL after being selected ninth overall. Defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen arrives from Arkansas State with a 4-2-5 scheme that ranked 11th in the country in pass defense and 45th in total defense last year and will be relying on end Isaiah Chambers and All-American JUCO cornerback Damarion Williams to help settle into the new scheme.

“I feel good,” said Holgersen about the defense in his weekly press conference. “We’ve coached them the right way. We’ve added some guys that we think will be really valuable to us. I’m eager to see what every aspect of our team is going to do whether it’s defense, offense or kicking. I don’t think we can truly gauge where we are, because we haven’t even played game one yet. After this, we’re going to figure out where we are at and then take that feedback to then make corrections and improve. That way we can be much better come games 3 and 4.”

As far as the challenge of taking on Hurts?

“He’s got a lot of experience,” said Holgersen. “He’s a smart kid. I remember at my previous position, we kept an eye on him when he was coming up. He’s just one player though. You really never know what you’re going to get this early on in the season. They don’t know what they’re getting from us, and we don’t know what we’re getting from them.”

Hurts out to follow footsteps of Murray and Mayfield

Calling Hurts’ arrival in Norman a redemption story is not accurate considering he was already part of a national title-winning team and had a 26-2 record as a starter at Alabama. Instead, Hurts guiding Riley’s offense is looking for another national title and best leveraging his chances for an NFL future similar to Murray and Mayfield.

“The whole situation is unique and it’s happening to a unique person,” Hurts said during his introductory press conference in Norman. “I’m not your average Joe. I’m kind of built for these kinds of situations. There’s never been anything in my way that I couldn’t overcome or see through.

“I clearly understand what I got myself into, but I also know I have expectations for myself.”

Hurts will not lack for weapons since Oklahoma also has 1,000-yard rushers and receivers returning in sophomore running back Kennedy Brooks and junior wideout CeeDee Lamb. Brooks immediately stepped into the backfield last year and averaged a gaudy 8.9 yards per carry while scoring 12 touchdowns and Lamb had 65 receptions for 1,158 yards and 11 TDs as the second option to Marquise Brown.

There is little worry about Oklahoma’s offense with Hurts’ presence, but the defense caused plenty of them last year, which included a mid-season firing of coordinator Mike Stoops following a 48-45 loss to Texas in the Red River game. The Sooners held only two teams under 20 points and six scored at least 40.

Alex Grinch, who is serving as defensive coordinator for a third different school in as many seasons after stops at Washington State and Ohio State, is trying to piece together a group that finished a school-worst 114th in total defense, 121st in takeaways (11) and dead last in passing defense with 294 yards allowed per game.

“There lies the magic, making sure you’re not accepting of poor performance, but also making sure that you’re building confidence along the way at the same point,” Grinch told USA Today in comparing the rebuild to his time at Washington State from 2015-17. “I don’t claim to have that magic, but I’ve been down this road before.”

Grinch is already working short-handed as linebacker Caleb Kelly and defensive back Tre Norwood have already been lost for the season due to injury. His early season hopes could be linked on redshirt freshman Jalen Redmond making a successful transition to defensive end and working alongside defensive tackle Neville Gallimore.

Oklahoma has won 10 straight home games since a 38-31 loss to Iowa State on Oct. 7, 2017, and five straight non-conference contests in Norman since a 45-24 loss to then-No. 3 Ohio State in 2016.

Notable Trends

Oklahoma is:

  • No trends of note.

Houston is:

  • 16-7 ATS in its last 23 September games.
  • 15-4 ATS in its last 19 games on grass.

*****5-Star Pick*****

OVER 80 points (-110)

Yes it’s a basketball total, but recall Oklahoma and West Virginia combined for 115 points last season. It can also be argued Holgorsen has, at worst, comparable firepower in King, his trio of wideouts, and Carr with what he had last season with Will Grier and the Mountaineers.

And we’re still talking about Oklahoma’s defense as a work in progress. At the same time, if the Cougars gave up 37 points per game last season while having a defensive end who was selected ninth in the NFL Draft, what should be expected of a team with a first-year coordinator without him?

Points, points, and more points will be scored in this game, and it would not at all be surprising to see a live over/under of 100 during the contest. The fact this line has come down 2.5 points leading up to kickoff means to get in if you kept your powder dry until now.

****4-Star Pick****

90+ Total Points (+130)

Look, this space is all about big plus-money plays, and there were some longing looks at that +230 for the 100-plus point total. But there is no need to be greedy when the more realistic — and better — option of 90-plus is available at plus-money. Six of Oklahoma’s 12 regular-season games cleared 90 points in 2018, and Houston did so three times last year.

OVER 41.5 points first half (-115)

Oklahoma and Holgorsen’s West Virginia team blew by this number in last year’s meeting and combined for nine touchdowns and 63 points. The Sooners averaged 28.7 points in their seven home games last year, and there is not enough confidence in their defense to believe they will hold the Cougars under 20 in the first two quarters.

Helping the cause is the number dropping under a touchdown point total with that low hook.

***3-Star Picks***

Houston +23.5 (-110)

First things first, the expectation is for the Sooners to win the game outright and not fall victim to a Cougars upset for the second time in four seasons. That out of the way, there was little fall-off in Oklahoma’s offensive efficiency and proficiency from Mayfield to Murray last season, and that should be the case from Mayfield to Hurts this time around.

Taking the Cougars, though, comes down to Oklahoma’s defense still being a massive work in progress under Grinch, and being down two starters does not help. This is a case where King and the Cougars are going to “get theirs,” and that total could potentially reach 45 points with all the firepower Holgorsen has.

The good news is that Riley’s offenses have already hung a pair of 59s on Holgorsen from their Big 12 clashes the last two seasons and could very well do so again. It just does not seem likely the margin will be more than three touchdowns.

Oklahoma -13.5 first half (-115)

This pick is riding a strong start by Hurts coupled with one or two Cougars turnovers in the first half that allow the Sooners to get some separation. Giving under two full touchdowns makes Oklahoma the play, but make sure you get this on the low side of the hook and stay under 14.

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