Houston is ready to return to the national stage.
The Cougars are riding a four-game winning streak, are still undefeated and are preparing for arguably the biggest game of the American Athletic Conference schedule when they welcome the No. 21 South Florida to TDECU Stadium Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
“We know we're playing a great football team that's well coached with great athletes,” Houston head coach Major Applewhite said. “It has some notoriety in terms of the national coverage it will get, but this is a conference game. That is our job, and that is our goal, to win the west and put ourselves in the position to play for a conference championship.”
The 7-0 Bulls, under the direction of former Texas coach Charlie Strong, are one of six undefeated teams in the country and have matched their best start in school history for the second year in a row.
They have rallied from double-digit, fourth-quarter deficits to win three times this season.
South Florida does a good job of running the ball with backs Jordan Cronkite and Johnny Ford. Cronkite has five straight 100-yard games, while Ford went for 164 yards and three touchdowns last week in the Bulls’ win against UConn.
“They're both great players, and they run the ball really well,” Applewhite said. “They can make people miss. They can run with power. They have a host of wideouts that are explosive, and all of them can do it. They have a lot of skill, a lot of speed and power between the tackles. When I look at them this year, the two backs are playing at a very high level.”
The battle between the Bulls and Cougars last year was Houston quarterback D'Eriq King’s coming out party of sorts.
He came in towards the end of the second quarter, threw for 137 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 83 more and two scores and helped the Cougars come away with a 28-24 win against the previously undefeated Bulls.
Applewhite said he was happy with how King quickly took over the locker room halftime and saw the latest in a long list of signs that he had a special player on his hands.
“He had the opportunity to capture the team and he did,” he said. “He did it with a tremendous effort, leadership skills, willing his team to win in the fourth quarter, and showed everything you want your quarterback to have. What he's done from that point on is where all the credit goes.”
Injuries are playing a factor for the Cougars as they are with just about every team in college football at this stage of the season.
Running back Terence Williams is getting close to 100 percent and is expected to play against the Bulls as is receiver Raelon Singleton and cornerback Darrion Owens. Fellow defensive back Isaiah Johnson is still questionable.
But the most notable injury is to reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year Ed Oliver is questionable with a right knee contusion. The All-American is ninth in the league in total tackles and second in tackles for loss.
“Right now, it's what you would imagine in terms of the ninth week of the season,” Applewhite said. “Everyone has bumps and bruises, and there are things that some guys are going to have to play through. As coaches, we've got to get creative with our depth charts to figure out what we've got to do in some of these guys' absences."
Houston picked up its fourth win in a row last Saturday against Navy, scoring 28 second-half points to come away with a 49-36 win. King threw for 413 yards and three touchdowns and quarterback-turned-cornerback-turned-linebacker Austin Robinson led the team with 11 tackles.
The Cougars travel to face SMU on Nov. 3 and host Temple on Nov. 10.
“Now we're on to the next tough challenger in our conference,” Applewhite said. “It is a very difficult league and we're looking forward to the challenge though. It's been 23 days since we've last played (at home), our guys are chomping at the bit to get back on the field and get back in front of their home crowd. I'm just excited to go.”