Know your nonconference opponent: Houston

Oklahoma will need to find a way to contain Houston QB Greg Ward, who is a threat as a passer and runner. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at some of the top nonconference opponents to appear on the schedules of Big 12 teams this fall. The idea, as the days dwindle before the start of preseason camp, is to provide an overview of the top challenges in front of league teams in the early weeks of this season. Let’s kick off the project with Houston.

Opponent: Houston (vs. Oklahoma at NRG Stadium, Sept. 3)

Names to know: QB Greg Ward, RB Duke Catalon, WR Chance Allen, C Will Noble, DE Cameron Malveaux, LB Steven Taylor, LB Tyus Bowser, DT B.J. Singleton.

Offseason storyline: Where do we start? Well, Tom Herman, the 41-year-old coach who led Houston to a 13-1 finish and Peach Bowl win over Florida State in his first season, is the hottest young name in the business. After studying under Urban Meyer for three years as offensive coordinator at Ohio State, he's coveted by fans from Texas to Baylor to Texas A&M after signing a five-year deal in December that may not matter if the bigger schools come calling.

Or will it? It would sure help the Cougars’ cause with Herman if they climbed up the ladder -- to the Big 12. Houston sits at or near the top of the list of candidates for Big 12 expansion. It’s supported by governor Texas Greg Abbott and University of Texas president Greg Fenves as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby evaluates possible future league members.

Ward is a major-award candidate as a senior after he ranked 13th nationally (second among the Group of 5) in opponent-adjusted QBR (80.2) while also rushing for 1,108 yards last season. He played some receiver in 2013 and 2014 as well.

Catalon is a Texas transfer and former four-star recruit who sat out last year. The Cougars also gain the services of Oklahoma State transfer Ra’Shaad Samples, who will serve as one of Ward’s top targets.

What’s at stake for Oklahoma? Just about everything. That’s a mouthful, considering it’s Week 1. But the Sooners and Heisman Trophy-contending QB Baker Mayfield are still smarting from the beatdown delivered by Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. And Ohio State awaits in Week 3 in Norman.

The Houston game is strictly business for Oklahoma. Its players can’t get sucked into the expansion storyline -- which may have progressed by Sept. 3 to transform the Cougars from Big 12 candidate to future league participant.

Removing emotion, Oklahoma features the more loaded roster and figures to own a decent edge when it puts the ball in the hands of Mayfield. Houston struggled in pass defense last year, and the opener may serve as a stage for Penn State transfer Geno Lewis to announce his presence.

But the Sooners’ talented defense must slow Ward in a way that it could not Deshaun Watson of Clemson on New Year’s Eve -- or Oklahoma can likely forget about a return to the four-team playoff.

What’s at stake for Houston? The Cougars don’t need to worry about earning respect. They got plenty of it last year, losing only to UConn after a 10-0 start. With a win over Oklahoma, Houston could set the table for another undefeated run.

It must navigate a tricky road schedule in the American Athletic Conference and hosts Louisville out of the ACC in Week 12. But these are all winnable games.

If Houston gets an invite to the join the Big 12 ahead of this game, look out, the atmosphere against the Sooners’ at the NFL home of the Houston Texans would be electric.