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Breaking down Oklahoma vs. Houston

One of the most intriguing matchups of Kickoff Week is one with definite College Football Playoff implications as No. 3 Oklahoma travels to Houston to face the No. 15 Cougars at NRG Stadium. To preview the game, college football reporters Jake Trotter and Sam Khan Jr. take you inside the teams:

How to beat Oklahoma: By beating the Sooners in the offensive trenches. Oklahoma thrived last season when it got its powerful ground game rolling, as the Sooners led the Big 12 with an average of 5.5 yards per carry in conference games. Yet when the Sooners failed to open up lanes for Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon -- like against Texas and Clemson -- they struggled to score. This is still a relatively young and inexperienced offensive line, with potentially four underclassmen and at least two new starters. If Houston’s underrated defensive line can hold its own, the Cougars will have a chance to slow the Sooners down, giving Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and company a chance to keep up. -- Trotter

How to beat Houston: By constantly harassing Ward Jr. The game he struggled most in last season (Memphis) was the one when he was hit the most (four sacks) and had his fewest rushing yards (minus-19). The Cougars have new starters at left tackle, right guard and right tackle, so Oklahoma’s experienced defensive line could give Houston trouble up front. The Sooners would be wise to attack the Cougars in the air down the middle of the field, as Houston has new full-time starters at middle linebacker and both safety spots. All three positions were manned by senior leaders last season; how they will fare against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma's Air Raid is unknown, and worth testing for Mayfield. -- Khan

How Oklahoma beats you: The Sooners win behind a backfield that is the envy of much of college football -- Perine, Mixon and Mayfield. Perine can protect leads by grinding opposing defenses into the fourth quarter. Mixon is a versatile game-breaker, which allows him to move around playing alongside Perine. Mayfield is one of the most dangerous playmaking quarterbacks in the country -- in and out of the pocket. He has a knack for making blitzing defenses pay. And above all, he is at his best when a game is on the line, having led the country in passing efficiency after halftime last season. -- Trotter

How Houston beats you: The Cougars let Ward run the show offensively -- he and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson were the only two quarterbacks to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards last season. Houston will mix it up with run and pass out of its shotgun spread, a healthy amount of power run with Texas transfer running back Duke Catalon, and heavy doses of Ward keeping it. However, Ward can throw it around when needed and is accurate (67.2 percent completion rate). Defensively, the Cougars turn teams over -- no defense has been as successful at generating turnovers the past three seasons than the Cougars (they’re plus-54 in turnover margin in that span, No. 1 nationally) and they were second to only San Diego State in that category last season. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s group will also pressure teams early and often; Orlando is aggressive when it comes to calling blitzes. -- Khan

Oklahoma X factor: The Sooners boast an interesting weapon in tight end Mark Andrews, who will be used more like a wide receiver this season. Andrews had a breakout redshirt freshman campaign last season with seven touchdown receptions. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he could be the player Oklahoma turns to in red-zone situations. -- Trotter

Houston X factor: He might be a true freshman, but defensive tackle Ed Oliver (No. 4 overall player in the 2016 ESPN 300) could make an impact right away. The five-star recruit -- the first Houston signed in the modern recruiting era -- has been nothing short of impressive in training camp, and will see significant snaps against the Sooners. With Oklahoma possessing an impressive running game, it will be up to Houston’s defensive interior -- including Oliver -- to slow it down. -- Khan

Predictions

Trotter: Ward and Houston’s offense will give a retooling Sooners defense fits early on. But eventually, Oklahoma’s devastating rushing attack coupled with Mayfield’s opportune playmaking will prove too much for the Cougars in the second half. Oklahoma 41, Houston, 30.

Khan: It’s difficult to account for a quarterback like Ward -- Florida State learned firsthand last season -- and I’ll bet he gives the Sooners’ defense a lot of headaches. Can the Cougars pressure Mayfield enough and force enough turnovers to hang on when Oklahoma inevitably starts piling up the points? I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, they can. Houston 34, Oklahoma 31.