It's a new era in the Big 12 Conference and a new day for University of Houston Athletics. That new dawn begins Saturday night in Houston's TDECU Stadium with the Cougars’ Big 12 debut against the TCU Horned Frogs.
Once league mates in a previous life in the Southwest Conference and Conference USA, the Horned Frogs and Cougars are once again vying for the same conference crown in the new Big 12. Both teams enter the game 1-1 as the Frogs handled FCS Nicholls State last week while the Cougars suffered a devastating defeat in double overtime to intra-city foe Rice.
Frogs O’ War: Welcome to the Big 12! How is the Houston fanbase feeling about being a member of this new-look power conference? Is there big anticipation for this first Big 12 conference game?
Sam Razz: Thank you! The fanbase has been excited about the move to the Big 12 since basically the moment every credible college sports media person started reporting that UH would be among the schools added in September 2021. TCU fans will be able to relate to the Coogs’ plight as part of the group of schools left out in the cold when the Southwest Conference collapsed in the mid-1990s and having to play in leagues that were iffy (at best) geographic fits.
And I think TCU fans will understand well that the excitement isn’t just for the higher level of competition (though, that’s a big part of it). I think a lot of the excitement is to be back regularly playing teams in your ‘footprint’ like TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech. Chances are if you’re a Cougar fan/alumnus that you didn’t encounter ECU, Temple, or Memphis fans in your day to day life… which definitely isn’t the case when it comes to the trio of Texas schools UH will be competing against long-term in the Big 12.
Regardless of who exactly the opponent was, Cougar fans were going to be really excited for the football program’s first Big 12 game. But the fact that this is an in-state opponent coming off the incredible season that TCU had in 2022 makes it an even more enticing match-up.
FOW: Do you see the Horned Frogs and Cougars becoming heated rivals as league mates?
SR: I’ve gotten this question a few different times and I think what excites me about joining the Big 12 is seeing what rivalries develop organically in the coming seasons. If I had to rank the order of potential rivalry viability, I’d say Baylor is the team with the most potential to develop a heated rivalry with the Coogs. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much to a TCU audience about why someone would have a strong dislike of Baylor athletics. We saw a lot of Texas Tech in non-conference football games in the last decade plus and nothing really developed between the schools after any of those games. I’d probably have TCU a narrow 3rd behind Tech for in-state rivalry potential, just because I’d guess TCU has the least alumni presence in Houston of the 3 schools. But that is absolutely no guarantor that something between Horned Frog and Cougar fans can’t develop from a particularly heated head-to-head contest.
FOW: With the loss to Rice last week, how hot is Dana Holgorsen’s seat? Is there still confidence he can again be a successful coach long term in the Big 12?
SR: In terms of the fanbase’s feelings on Dana Holgorsen, I think even a lot of the most patient Cougar fans reached a point of no return from last Saturday night’s loss to Rice. Holgorsen has publicly talked about not feeling pressure and a couple of times has alluded to a “f***ing impossible buyout”. Acknowledging that UH’s boosters wouldn’t be thrilled about forking over the buyout money, it’s far from impossible if the 2023 on-field results go badly over these next 10 games.
Even though I do not expect any in-season coaching change, I think the loss to Rice eroded any confidence left among fans that Holgorsen can be a successful coach long term in the Big 12 at UH. Granted, Holgorsen had a winning Big 12 record in 4 of his final 5 seasons at WVU, something his successor Neal Brown has failed to do in any of his 4 previous seasons in Morgantown. Frustrated as I am with Holgorsen right now, he’s pulled proverbial rabbits out of hats before, its just hard to feel confident after a result as disappointing as the loss to Rice.
FOW: With Clayton Tune & Tank Dell now in the NFL, Holgorsen has turned the offense over to Texas Tech transfer QB Donovan Smith and playmaking WRs Matthew Golden and Samuel Brown. What will this UH offense do to take advantage of a TCU Defense that allowed over 500 passing yards in Week 1?
SR: It’s hard to disentangle the abysmal first 7 quarters of offense UH put on the field to start the season from the manic comeback to send the Rice game to OT, where the offense finally looked effective in the closing minutes. Donovan Smith did a nice job setting the tone, calling his own number and running the ball in the 2nd half against Rice. And I won’t say Rice’s front seven is the 1985 Chicago Bears, but they also gave a good Longhorn offensive line significant problems in week 1. So running the ball effectively at times against Rice was a small victory after an abysmal rushing performance vs UTSA. We’d hoped to see Donovan Smith still be an effective short yardage and goal line situational runner like he was at Texas Tech and he showed that in rushing for 3 TDs against the Owls. Also, RBs Tony Mathis Jr and Stacy Sneed looked good running the ball in that 2nd half comeback.
But the pass game has left a lot to be desired through 2 games. You mentioned Samuel Brown in your question and he’s been fantastic so far and is top of the list of most improved players on either side of the ball for the Coogs. Golden has 3 TD catches and has definitely had his moments, but I agree with Holgorsen’s public comments that he could be doing more to help out Smith and the pass game. And while I’ve been impressed with Smith’s toughness and running ability, I haven’t been impressed with some of the decisions he has made throwing the football. This is all to say that despite Holgorsen’s reputation as a pass game guru, I have real questions about this team’s ability to exploit any weaknesses in TCU’s pass defense like Colorado did in week 1.
FOW: The Cougars Defense did a terrific job holding down the dynamic UTSA offense in Week 1, forcing three Frank Harris interceptions, but in Week 2 allowed JT Daniels & Rice to sprint out to a 28-0 advantage. Which version of the defense is more representative of reality? Who are the players most likely to cause problems for QB Chandler Morris and the TCU Offense?
SR: After 2 weeks of football, I have questions about how meaningful holding UTSA to 14 points in the opener was because the Roadrunners and QB Frank Harris appear to be having some real problems in the early part of this season. But I think if you can take 1 positive, meaningful thing away from these first 2 games its that UH has a couple of transfer defensive backs: Malik Fleming and Isaiah Hamilton, who have shown an ability to create havoc. Fleming intercepted 2 UTSA passes in week 1 and Hamilton had an interception and a forced fumble against Rice, which greatly helped the comeback effort last Saturday. What scares me the most is TCU’s super veteran interior O Line going against a Cougar defensive front missing interior D Line regulars Chidozie Nwankwo and Jamaree Caldwell. I don’t think this defense is as bad as that 28-0 start by Rice would make you think, but I also don’t believe week 1 performance against UTSA was as much of a statement as we believed it to be after the opener.
In terms of who could cause problems in the pass rush, Nelson Ceaser gotten a lot of offseason hype and through 2 games has 3 sacks and has looked to be worth every bit of hype. The problem is the rest of the roster has produced precisely 0 sacks and a big part of Rice’s extremely successful start to last Saturday’s game was their QB JT Daniels having plenty of time to find open receivers. The poor pass defense in week 2 is a result of poor pass rush just as much as the defensive back play. For what its worth, Holgorsen said in public comments after the game that Oklahoma grad transfer DE David Ugowoegbu would be getting way more snaps than he did against Rice and expressed frustration he wasn’t more involved last week.
FOW: It’s been 20 years since TCU played the Cougars in a regular season game in Houston, a thrilling 62-55 Horned Frogs victory. For Frogs fans traveling down for the game Saturday, can you give us a flavor for the game day experience? What are the must-see bars and restaurants near TDECU Stadium? Any tailgating tips and tricks?
SR: While I think the loss to Rice depressed the mood a bit among Cougar fans, I think this will still be a good crowd considering the occasion of this being UH’s first ever Big 12 football game. There were a lot of complaints among Cougar fans, present company included, about the gameday experience at TDECU Stadium in 2022 and worries that the same issues would be intensified by larger crowds from a Big 12 schedule this season. But from what I heard from the people who were there week 1 (I live 2,000 miles from Houston and was not there for the opener), the gameday experience and new amenities were well executed. UH Athletics has done a good job getting good local eateries to have a presence at TDECU Stadium, so I’d like to think Horned Frog fans will have a better offering for stadium grub than the average road stadium experience.
I am personally a big fan of Moon Tower Inn, a Houston East End establishment about 5 minutes from TDECU Stadium with a great beer selection and menu, and late hours to accommodate the post-game crowd. Also, I am a huge fan of Star Pizza which has a couple of locations within 5 miles of the UH campus and is the only Houston area pizza place I make it a priority to visit when I’m back in my hometown.
FOW: What is your prediction for how the game will play out Saturday night?
SR: Hoo buddy, this one could go a lot of different ways. As bad as it looked last Saturday against Rice, I do believe this team will come out with a different level of energy after that really disappointing loss. Unlike the first 2 games where UH was either in a toss-up game (UTSA) or was a big favorite (Rice), for the first time this season UH is definitely not the team under more pressure to win. This is not me saying that there is no pressure or historical significance of this program’s first ever Big 12 game, but if UH loses this game in non-embarrassing fashion I don’t think the narrative around this program/season changes that much. On the other hand, I think a hypothetical TCU loss to what looks like a bottom part of the Big 12 standings UH team to go to 0-2 against FBS opponents will cause some consternation in the Horned Frog fanbase.
I have a hard time seeing how a Cougar defense that struggled to slow down Rice’s passing attack could slow down Chandler Morris and a significantly better TCU offense. From watching a season of his offense at UH, I know TCU OC Kendal Briles is prone to getting way too cute and diving into his proverbial ‘bag of tricks’ when there is no reason to do so… but I also struggle to see any scenario where UH holds the Horned Frog offense to fewer than 30 points. This puts pressure on an offense that’s had its moments and is going against a TCU defense with its own questions to answer, but I am far from confident enough to predict this offense is capable of winning the kind of shoot out that Saturday night could be.
This is all a roundabout way of me saying I think TCU will win and cover whatever the current spread on this game is, but I expect the game to be competitive for the majority if not entirety of Saturday night’s game in Houston.
A big thanks to Sam for taking the time to answer our questions ahead of Saturday’s Big 12 opener. You can follow his Scott & Holman Pawdcast on social media and listen to the latest episode previewing the game between the Horned Frogs and Cougars:
New #Pawdcast! Unpacking a shocking upset loss to Rice & previewing TCU w/ @north_anthony. PLUS: Big 12 FB week 2/3, @UHCougarWGolf, @UHCougarVB & @UHCougarSoccer, @uh_hockey talk.— The Scott & Holman Pawdcast (@SHPawdcast) September 13, 2023