Major Applewhite is a typical head coach in that he doesn’t look much at records or rankings.
Both of those outlooks will come in handy this week when No. 17 Houston travels to face off with SMU Saturday night at 6 p.m. at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas in a battle of two teams rising five-game winning streaks.
“They're playing their best football right now,” Applewhite said. “It's always difficult to go on the road, it's always difficult to go on the road at night, but our guys have a great mindset right now and we have a great feel with our team, in terms of focusing on what you need to do this week and the discipline to do it.”
The Cougars are ranked for the first time since Applewhite was named the head coach in 2016.
And after starting the season with three straight wins, the Mustangs have four of their last five games losing in overtime against Cincinnati last week.
Houston is coming off its most dominant game of the season last Saturday afternoon against previously undefeated USF. Junior quarterback D’Eriq King had a monster game, passing for 419 yards and five interceptions and rushing for 132 and a pair of scores.
King was named as a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award for Collegiate Player of the Year on Monday as well as picking up AAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Defensively, Houston allowed 263 yards through the air and 204 yards on the ground against one the American Athletic Conference’s most potent rushing duos. But it had two turnovers, an interception by Nick Robinson and a fumble recovery by Austin Robinson.
The Cougars were without All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who continues to be day-to-day with a knee injury headed into the game against SMU.
“I know Ed is a tremendous part of our football team and our program,” Applewhite said. “We always want to do something that makes us a little more special. (Last week) was an opportunity to play an undefeated team without your best player, and prove what you can do. They really did that in the second half.”
Houston receiver Courtney Lark finished Saturday’s win over the Bulls with 85 yards and a touchdown, but he had to be carted off after coming down funny on his knee in the third quarter. Applewhite said the injury isn’t as bad as it the doctors thought and he is “very questionable” to play against the Mustangs.
SMU ranks dead last in the AAC in total offense and No. 8 of 10 teams in total defense.
The Mustangs, the most rushing team in the conference, have a two-quarterback system with Ben Hicks and William Brown rotating snaps under center. Hicks has thrown for 1,325 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Brown has 625 yards and seven passing scores.
The Mustangs’ pass defense is in the bottom half of the league, allowing 238.5 yards through the air per game. King is the only quarterback in the league averaging more than 300 passing yards per game and is the second-best rushing quarterback in the conference.
"D'Eriq is just taking opportunities, plays breaking down, playing off schedule,” Applewhite said. “There is some designed quarterback runs that we have to use, that's his strength or one of his strengths. We try not to run our quarterback too much, but there are some instances that we do want to run him.”
The Cougars beat the Mustangs 35-22 last season and King was the second-leading receiver with 47 yards and a touchdown.
Following Saturday’s away tilt with SMU, Houston ends the season with home games against Temple on Nov. 10 and Tulane on Thursday, Nov. 15 and a road game against Memphis on Nov. 23.
For this team, a ranking is the hard work they’ve put in up to this point in the year coming to fruition.
“I think they're grateful,” Applewhite said. “They're grateful for the recognition and the respect of the coaches' poll, but I think we're all on the same page because we haven't won anything. These are just rankings. These are the entertainment dollars right now; these aren't real. This is what people want to get involved with, talk about, like and re-tweet, but it doesn't matter.”