Under a new QB, Oklahoma could rely more on Trey Sermon and the run game against Houston. 

IAN MAULE/Tulsa World file

During a Monday radio segment, I shared an opinion that the Houston Cougars are a perfect season-opening opponent for the 2019 Oklahoma Sooners.

Houston is a light heavyweight with a decent national reputation and an interesting new coach (Dana Holgorsen). The Cougars will be good enough to make OU work for a victory, but not good enough to ruin OU’s season.

This was the response from a radio colleague: “Houston is a terrible first opponent! Houston has a solid passing game! OU has issues defensively!”

I’m paraphrasing a little here, but the colleague suggested that Oklahoma could lose when it hosts Houston for the Sunday, Sept. 1, opener in Norman.

Unless the Sooners self-destruct with turnovers, penalties and world-record totals of missed tackles and blown coverages — totals far beyond any of last season — there’s no way that Oklahoma loses to Houston.

Since 1973 — Barry Switzer’s first season as the OU head coach — the Sooners are 40-6 in openers.

The most recent loss of those six occurred in 2016: a 33-23 setback at Houston.

Those Tom Herman-coached Cougars had Greg Ward Jr. at QB, Ed Oliver on the defensive line and six additional players who eventually were selected in the NFL draft.

In 2015 and 2016, those Cougars were 22-5, including 5-0 against nationally ranked teams.

With those chips, Herman got the Texas job.

Those Cougars are not these Cougars.

Houston celebrates the return of quarterback D’Eriq King, who last season sustained a knee injury that sidelined him for the final three games. Houston’s top three receivers are back, but the Cougars are being rebuilt on the offensive line and throughout most of the defense.

King is one of 13 returning starters. As he recovered from meniscus surgery, he watched from the sideline as the Major Applewhite-coached Cougars closed the 2018 season with an embarrassing performance.

In the Armed Forces Bowl, the Army Black Knights rushed for 507 yards and smashed Houston 70-14.

The Cougars should contend in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division, but they’re not going to lose by 56 points to Army in one game and then win at Oklahoma in the next.

As the West Virginia head man, Holgorsen was 0-7 against OU. Including his one year at Oklahoma State and his eight seasons at Texas Tech, he is 2-14 overall against OU.

Today’s OU seniors were freshmen when the Sooners lost at Houston in 2016. Lincoln Riley was on the sideline that day as the play-caller for the Sooners offense. He remembers the shock of that loss, which occurred eight months after a College Football Playoff appearance.

During this month of preseason camp, Riley likely will remind his players of the 2016 Houston outcome.

Whatever OU’s “best effort” might look like on Sept. 1, I expect to see it in the rematch with the Cougars. I also expect the OU run game to top the 300-yard mark.

While Jalen Hurts establishes chemistry with his receivers, the sure-thing approach is to run the heck out of the football. Houston would have no answer for that.

By opening night, the Sooners defense will have had about 35 practices with Alex Grinch. Even if OU doesn’t have the personnel to make a huge jump defensively this season, it will look better. It has to.

In all of college football, there’s no unit that needs a shot of confidence more than the OU defense. If opening night goes even fairly well, it’s a nice first building block for Grinch.

If OU plays beautifully and wins big, there will be the immediate justification of OU’s ranking and the entire program will get a spike in energy.

In 1999, OU opened against an FCS team. The Sooners mugged Indiana State 49-0, as Josh Heupel passed for a program-record five touchdowns.

For an OU program that was emerging from a 10-year post-Switzer period that ranged from lackluster to horrible, Indiana State was an ideal opening opponent.

OU’s players were starved for the feeling of playing well and dominating. OU’s fans needed hope. Everyone was happy that day.

The OU program is far beyond the one that Bob Stoops inherited before the 1999 season. Riley’s program doesn’t need an Indiana State to open the season.

My radio friend suggested that a team like OU — with a new QB and a developing defense — would be better served to host a cupcake in the opener. Such a game is scheduled for Sept. 7, when the FCS South Dakota Coyotes visit Owen Field.

For a ticket price of $55, you can watch OU beat South Dakota 66-7 and you probably won’t learn a whole lot about the Sooners.

Or for $80, in what should be a revealing and interesting game, you can witness Houston-OU.

Bill Haisten


Twitter: @billhaisten

Sports Columnist

Bill joined the Tulsa World in 1990. Prior to having become a sports columnist in 2016, he was the only sports writer in Tulsa World history to have covered OU, OSU, the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts sports on an everyday basis. Phone: 918-581-8397