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First things first for UH, starting with Tulsa

October 3, 2018

In a world of instant notifications and 24/7 social media opinion and comments, barring a total blackout, University of Houston players cannot escape the talk.

How the offense is one of the most explosive in the nation.

How the defense desperately needs to find its identity.

How the American Athletic Conference West division is in total chaos and up for grabs.

“They can look at these all they want,” said UH coach Major Applewhite, holding up a cellular phone during his weekly press conference. “Our job is when they come into the facility, it’s Tulsa.”

Considering the embarrassment endured in last year’s meeting — a 45-17 loss that was the Cougars’ worst of the season — that should be more than enough. Coming off an open date in the schedule, the Cougars (3-1) become the last team to begin conference play in a nationally televised game against Tulsa (1-3, 0-1 AAC) at 7 p.m. Thursday at TDECU Stadium.

UH players refrained from using “payback” or “revenge” this week to describe the rematch from a mid-October game last season that sent the Cougars spiraling to a 3-4 finish.

“We went out there and embarrassed ourselves, really, last year,” linebacker Emeke Egbule said. “We’re anxious for every game. But this is a big game because it’s our conference opener.”

As the Cougars prepare to begin league play, the West division has been turned upside down. Defending champion Memphis is off to a 0-2 conference start. Picked to finish third, Navy is 1-1. At the top of the standings? Tulane and SMU, both 1-0.

“I don’t pay attention to the standings,” Applewhite said. “The only way you make a conference run is if you play one game at a time, and that’s our focus.”

While the East division has gone according to plan, with No. 12 Central Florida, South Florida and Cincinnati a combined 13-0, the West division has gone through one surprise after another during the opening month. Navy beat Memphis, then two weeks later lost to SMU in overtime. The latest upset came last week when Tulane dominated Memphis in a 40-24 win.

Does that put the Cougars in the driver’s seat for its first West division title since 2015? Since the AAC went to the divisional format in 2015, no team has won the West division with more than one loss, although that could change based on early returns this season.

Barring any slipups, the Cougars have the easiest schedule down the stretch with the final eight opponents a combined 18-18. The toughest remaining games are back-to-back at Navy (Oct. 20) and South Florida (Oct. 27), along with the regular-season finale at Memphis in what has become an annual shootout.

Among the other West division challengers, Navy has the toughest remaining schedule (.676) that includes a brutal four-week stretch that includes Houston, Notre Dame and road games against Cincinnati and UCF.

Tulane has the next toughest remaining schedule (.633) with games against unbeaten Cincinnati and USF, SMU, Houston and Navy.

Meanwhile, SMU, plays UCF this weekend — its third top 25 opponent in a month — followed by a road game against Tulane and back-to-back home games against Cincinnati and Houston.

In what should help the Cougars, SMU, Navy and Memphis all play cross-division games against UCF, which currently owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 17.

UH is the overwhelming favorite to win seven of its last eight games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, with the only loss to Memphis on the day after Thanksgiving. In that scenario, the Cougars would finish the regular season 10-2, hold the head-to-head division tiebreaker and advance to the AAC championship game.

Of course, none of that matters if the Cougars repeat and have the type of slipups that cost them a shot last season. Even after losing to Tulsa, the Cougars were in the division race until blowing a 17-point lead to Memphis the following week and losing 20-17 to Tulane.

“What we know for sure is that we’ve got to beat Tulsa, so that’s all our focus is on and it’s all we’re talking about right now,” Applewhite said. “They dominated us last year, so our focus is Tulsa, and that’s how we approach all our games.”

joseph.duarte@chron.com

twitter.com/Joseph_Duarte

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