By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
At first glance, the Houston Cougars, who finished 4-8 last season, seem like an easy opening opponent for Baylor football.
But after a bizarre first season under head coach Dana Holgorsen, which saw Houston redshirt over 35 players, including star senior quarterback D’Eriq King, the Cougars are primed to take a massive leap forward and challenge the Bears on Saturday.
After starting last season 1-3, Holgorsen made the controversial decision to redshirt many of his best players, so that they could return the following season with an extra year of eligibility.
While King ultimately decided to transfer, Houston will still reap the benefits of their redshirting scheme in 2020.
“It’s rare to get a bunch of excitement on the heels of a 4-8 season,” Holgorsen said during a University of Houston Coaches Caravan. “If our spring ball is any indication, we fixed a lot. We have a chance to be really good.”
Houston returns all four of its top receivers from last season, including senior Marquez Stevenson.
Stevenson, who did not redshirt last year, caught 52 passes for 907 yards and 9 touchdowns, and has been named first-team All-American Conference the past two years. He is a player that Baylor will want to pay special attention to.
The key to Houston’s success on offense this season, however, is junior quarterback and captain Chase Tune. Tune played seven games for Houston in 2019, throwing for 1,533 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Holgorsen said in a press conference Monday that he’s been impressed with the improvements Tune has made during the offseason.
“Clayton is in a really good spot,” Holgorsen said. “His familiarity with the offense and the receivers is better than it’s ever been. He’s got the ear of the team and the respect of the team. It’s his team.”
Protecting Tune is an experienced offensive line, with four seniors projected to start.
With the number of players returning with valuable experience, the Houston offense looks ready to put up a lot of points.
Baylor head coach Dave Aranda has acknowledged as much, saying in Monday’s press conference that Houston’s offense will be a “challenge” to handle.
“Their skill is what jumps out at you first when you watch the tape,” Aranda said. “it’s impressive to watch them. Offensively, they stress you out.”
Defense was the Cougar’s Achilles heel last season and could continue to be this year. Houston gave up over 450 yards per game, while allowing an average of 34 points.
Due to the extensive redshirting, the Cougars will return many of its starters from last year. According to Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings at ESPN, Houston’s defense will return 93% of its production.
However, that group must show improvement immediately or Baylor and senior quarterback Charlie Brewer will have a field day.
One particular point of emphasis will be Houston’s defensive line. The Cougars only managed 22 sacks last season, which pales in comparison to Baylor’s 46.
This bodes well for Baylor, who’s offensive line struggled to protect Brewer at times last season. Brewer should have ample time to throw the ball on Saturday if Houston’s Defensive line remains relatively the same.
An area of strength for the Houston defense should be the secondary. Senior cornerback Damarion Williams returns after finishing second on the team in tackles with 73 total.
Houston also adds numerous transfers to the secondary, including former Minnesota cornerback Kelvin Clemmons.
Holgorsen said he’s liked what he’s seen from the defensive backs and that they have helped improve the entire team with their play during practices and scrimmages.
“It’s real competitive,” Holgersen said about the defensive backs. “They’re making our receivers better every single day too, which is what I’m encouraged by … it’s making everyone better.”
Houston will be a challenging matchup for Baylor, but Aranda believes that the Bears will be ready.
“I feel real confident in our team,” Aranda said. “I know we’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Baylor will play Houston at 11 a.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium. The game will be broadcast on FOX.