Louisville Cardinals (9-1 SU, 5-4-1 ATS) vs. Houston Cougars (8-2 SU, 4-6 ATS)
College Football Week 12
Date/Time: Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 8PM EST
Where: TDECU Stadium, Houston, Texas
By Loot, NCAA Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: LOU -14/HOU +14
Over/Under Total: 67
The Louisville Cardinals come into TDECU Stadium on Thursday to face the Houston Cougars in a big week 12 matchup. Louisville smashed Wake Forest on Saturday, but it wasn't so much what happened to Louisville, but what happened to nearly all the other top teams. With 3 of the top 4 teams losing, the Cardinals are now squarely in the CFP discussion. But they face an 8-win Houston team that is coming off a win over Tulane on Saturday. The Cougars took some bad losses this season after briefly being in the discussion themselves. A win here could pump some wind back into their 2016 efforts.
A lot has changed since last season when Houston beat Louisville, 34-31. The Houston defense was able to severely curtail the production of Lamar Jackson, as the current Heisman frontrunner threw two picks and had just 16 yards rushing on 12 carries. But this is not the same Lamar Jackson. Houston probably can't expect on a total shutdown of Jackson in this season's game as they did last year. Key in Houston's win was the performance of Greg Ward, Jr., who ran for 98 yards and threw 3 TD passes. A lot has changed and Louisville is a rightful favorite in this matchup.
Again, the elevation of the form of Lamar Jackson has been startling. He's not the same greenhorn that was getting his feet wet last season, as he has morphed into college football's top playmaker. He is nearing 3000 yards passing with 27 touchdowns, while he is now at 1336 yards rushing with 19 touchdowns. They had a narrow road loss to Clemson in their only setback in 2016 and have since won five straight games. They are now on the precipice of big things.
The Louisville offense is the top-ranked group in the nation. They are at the top in terms of total yardage and points, as they score 50 points a game on average. Brandon Ratcliff and Jeremy Smith have combined for 13 touchdowns on the ground. Ten different receivers have caught touchdowns, led by Jamari Staples, James Quick, and Cole Hikutini—a dynamic trio of ball-catchers. There is a lot of room in this offense for a lot of different players to shine and that's what we're seeing this season.
The Louisville defense looks to be in fine form lately, allowing just 19 points in the last two weeks. A lot of people are blinded by the high-flying offense, but don't let that detract from a Cardinals defense that has really boosted their play this season. They are ranked 6th in total defense, giving up a tick over 20 points per game. They are 11th against the pass and 6th against the run. They have a consistently-applied pass rush and with 22 turnovers, they are able to regularly make solid contributions to the overall team effort. While teams have been able to score on this group, only Clemson was able to really get their offense rolling against this unit.
Houston is hoping they can use a peppy offense to make some inroads against the Cardinals. And last season's win probably gives them a mental boost or at least the awareness that they can succeed against this team. Other than Clemson, Louisville has had it pretty easy from a scheduling standpoint, as Houston could be their second-toughest opponent of the season. Granted, Houston has seen some problems this season. Star QB Greg Ward, Jr. has been battered and injured at times this season, as his line hasn't always been good at protecting him, in addition to his risky running style also putting him at more risk.
The Cougars offense is still a potentially powerful bunch. Ward, Jr. has thrown 16 touchdowns, while running for 9 more. They have a lot of useful backs that can produce, as six different Houston players have multiple TD runs. Through the air, Ward, Jr. works with talented ball-catchers like Linell Bonner, Chance Allen, and Steven Dunbar. They average nearly 38 points a game and while they lack the overall explosiveness of Louisville, it's a team that can still put up a lot of points.
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Like Louisville, a lot of people overlook the Cougars' defense, the 9th-ranked total defense in the country. Teams struggle massively running against this "D," as they are ranked third overall in that category. They weren't very good against either Navy or SMU, succeeding against a ramshackle collection of AAC teams. In other words, the Louisville defense has been more severely-tested and has held up better against some of the teams that took it to Houston this season. They've scored a few times this season and get after the passer, but their high defensive rankings lack some of the clout that Louisville has. It's a good defense, but one that has shown they can be in trouble against good offenses.
One should expect Louisville to elevate their mental state with this newfound hope as they are now right in the CFP mix and able to control their own destiny. And this is a chance to add a nice win to solidify their standing. Houston, however, has shown an ability to rise to the occasion and while last season's win can be debated in terms of relevance to this game, it has to help Houston on some level. I see a Louisville win, with the Cougars able to play them hard and keep it from getting too out of hand.
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