SAN ANTONIO (AP) — UTSA looks extremely familiar to Houston coach Dana Holgorsen because he sees so much of his own team in the Roadrunners.
A large number of returning starters on both sides. Upperclassmen dominating the starting lineup. Explosive offenses led by a prolific passing quarterback. Two programs on the rise with great expectations for the season.
“There is a lot of motivated guys that are excited about competing,” Holgorsen said. “It obviously starts Saturday with a very similar football team when it comes to experience, age, success and we’re at their place as well. The guys understand the challenge.”
UTSA hosts No. 24 Houston on Saturday in the season opener for both.
The Cougars are ranked in the AP Top 25 preseason poll for the first time since 2016 in Holgorsen's fourth year as head coach. After finishing 7-13 in his first two seasons, Holgorsen led Houston to a 12-2 record last season and a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Roadrunners coach Jeff Traylor said the Cougars are “arguably the best” team they have faced as he enters his third season at UTSA.
“We’re an underdog,” Traylor said. “No one is picking us to win. I don’t think if you polled too many people, they’re expecting us to win. So, our guys know we are a heavy underdog.”
Like the Cougars, the Roadrunners finished 12-2 last season. UTSA won the program’s first league title, capturing the Conference USA title, and were ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history.
“They are an experienced football team,” Holgorsen said. “You just look at their schedule, who they beat, how many guys they’ve got coming back. It didn’t take long to get our players’ attention that this was going to be a big game.
Houston and UTSA both return seniors at quarterback in their fourth year as starters. The Cougars averaged 35.2 points per game last season and the Roadrunners averaged 35.5.
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune passed for 3,546 yards and 30 touchdowns last season and is on pace to join Case Keenum (19,217) and Kevin Kolb (12,964) as the only 10,000-yard passers in program history.
UTSA quarterback Frank Harris set school single-season records in multiple categories, including passing yards (3,177) and touchdowns (27).
UTSA’s success last season has created a buzz in San Antonio that Traylor hopes leads to one of the largest and loudest crowds in school history. Ticket sales for the opener are robust enough that seats are being sold in the upper deck, which is traditionally closed off.
The Roadrunners hope to exceed last season’s largest crowd of 41,148 at the Alamodome and possibly challenge their all-time attendance record of 56,743 set in the program’s inaugural game Sept. 3, 2011.
Holgorsen said the Cougars practiced indoors this week with their sound system blasting to mimic the expected noise level.
“It’s challenging,” Holgorsen said. “We know the crowd is going to be loud. That dome is loud. I’ve coached a few games in that thing. It doesn’t have to be sold out to be loud, (but) it probably will be sold out. I’m expecting a sold-out crowd, a heck of a crowd.”
Houston will embark on its 77th season while UTSA is starting its 12th.
Holgorsen has been happy with the development of fifth-year senior Ta’Zhawn Henry, who became the Cougars’ starter at running back after last season's leading rusher, Alton McCaskill IV, suffered a knee injury during spring practice. Henry rushed for 524 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“A lot of things happen later in your career when you don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘There’s always next year,’ ” Holgorsen said. “Some guys grow up real quick. I’ve seen Ta’Zhawn grow up real quick.”
Houston is in its final season in American Athletic Conference and will join the Big 12 next year. UTSA is joining the AAC in 2023.