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5 things to know as the Cougars face No. 16 SMU

Garrett Davis #1 of the Houston Cougars huddles with teammates before the game against the East Carolina Pirates at TDECU Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Garrett Davis #1 of the Houston Cougars huddles with teammates before the game against the East Carolina Pirates at TDECU Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (2017 Getty Images)


For the second time this season, the Houston Cougars will be on the national stage as they face the No.16 SMU Mustangs on Thursday night.

Roles are reversed this year, Houston trying to beat an undefeated SMU. Last year, SMU beat a No. 17 Houston 45-31, in Dallas.

Houston is playing their third ranked team this season. Inside TDECU stadium Houston is 5-2 against ranked opponents, since it opened in 2014. 

Here are some things to watch in the Houston versus SMU matchup. 

1. Houston defense

Despite all of the numbers, Houston's defense has improved every weak, and given them opportunities to win games. After Thursday's game, Houston will have played three out of 10 teams with the best total offenses in all of college football.

Against North Texas, Houston's 21 straight games with a takeaway ended. The last two weeks their defense has taken the ball away from the opposing offense.

Not allowing Shane Buechele to sit comfortably in the pocket with be key. David Anenih will be vital in applying pressure to Buechele; he leads the team and is third in the conference with 5.5 sacks.

"I believe in my abilities and I really trust myself and my abilities to win one on one against an offensive linemen," said Anenih.  

Over the last three weeks, Houston's defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher. The last time Houston played on Thursday night they gave up a total of 325 rushing yards, 113 coming from Tulane's leading rusher Darius Bradwell.

Sonny Dykes' air-raid offense has a balanced approach, their running game often sets up their efficient passing game. Limiting the explosive plays, and getting off the field on third down will be something to pay attention to. 

2. Battle on the ground

When both Dykes and Dana Holgorsen were coaching together at Texas Tech under the godfather of the air-raid offense Mike Leach, they did not run the ball as often and effective as their current teams. 

Houston is third in the American and 22nd in FBS rushing offense. Kyle Porter leads all Cougars in rushing yards with 448 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 74.7 yards per game. With Houston being plagued by injuries, they have used wide receiver Bryson Smith in a wildcat package to produce some rushing yards. They also like to use Marquez "Speedy" Stevenson in some reverse action to get him in the open field.

Clayton Tune in his first start proved he was a dual-threat, rushing for over 100 yards. Tune was hobbled against Cincinnati, and sat out last week against UConn. Holgorsen said Tune has practiced twice this week, and he expects him to play. If Tune is healthy, he should be a factor in Houston's ground game as well. 

SMU's prolific passing attack benefits greatly from having Xavier Jones, the third leading rushing in the American, and 13th leading rushing in college football. The last two games Jones has carried the ball over 25 times, gaining over 100 rushing yards in both games. Jones has a total of 751 rushing yards, along with 12 rushing rushing touchdowns, in addition to averaging 127.0 rushing yards per game. Keep an eye on Ke'Mon Freeman, when he gets his chances to carry the ball. 

3. SMU Passing attack

Texas transfer Buechele is the perfect quarterback to run Dykes offense. Buechele's early playing experience at Texas helped mold him into the great decision maker we are seeing this year. SMU's offense is one of the best in the nation averaging 521.1 yards per game, fifth in FBS averaging 44.3 points per game.

In the American Athletic Conference, Buechele leads all in passing yards at 303.1 yards per game, in addition to SMU leading in total team offense with 323.7 yards per game. Buechele gets plenty of help from his receivers on the outside.

4. Houston creating explosive plays

Momentum changing plays have come in different ways all season for Houston. Holgorsen has had to be versatile with his play calling, and how he sets up defenses to attack them downfield.

Wide receiver Bryson Smith has been used a lot in the wildcat, running the football the last couple of games. Smith a high school quarterback, has shown his throwing skills, the times he has thrown the football. When asked about how comfortable he feels throwing, Smith said "it feels natural." Expect Smith to get more chances throwing, and running.

Stevenson has been a big play waiting to happen every time he has got his hands on the ball. Stevenson leads Houston in all purpose yards with 767 total yards. The last two weeks wide receiver Jeremy Singleton has had a 50 yard touchdown catch. Houston will need to produce some explosive plays to keep up with the high powered SMU offense.

5. Special teams

Houston's punter Dane Roy has been the team's best weapon in moments this season. Roy is having is best season leading the American, sixth in FBS with an average of 47.3 yards per punt. The senior captain also leads the American with 18 punts downed inside the 20, in addition to 12 punts over 50 yards.

Houston's kicker Dalto Witherspoon has gone 9 for 12 and has been consistent throughout the year when called upon to kick. On the other hand, SMU has used three different kickers, plus four different punters this season.