The Houston Cougars might be able to get away with playing a relatively soft non-conference schedule to start the season.
As a member of the American Athletic Conference, they’re going to get a good deal of help in the RPI from their conference foes, and with annual games against the likes of Rice, Sam Houston State, Texas, and McNeese State already more or less built in, they get some help from their midweek games as well.
But if you want your team to be battle-tested early on, put the team in a position to have some room for error for an at-large bid, and to host a regional at the end of the season if they win enough games, it behooves you to schedule tough, and that’s precisely what Houston head coach Todd Whitting and his staff did in 2018.
“Once again the schedule is one I feel puts us in the best position to earn an NCAA at-large bid. Our non-conference slate is filled with a variety of NCAA tournament teams, which gives us the opportunity to elevate our RPI. This schedule will be a challenge for our team, and we are looking forward to the competition ahead of us,” Whitting said in the school release announcing the 2018 schedule.
They start things off at home against Holy Cross. At first glance, that might not strike you as a tough series. The Crusaders, after all, are a northern team from a smaller conference. But looking a bit closer, they were a regional team last year after winning the Patriot League automatic bid, and not satisfied with just being there, pulled an upset over Nebraska.
Furthermore, Holy Cross is no stranger to playing this type of series, so they aren’t likely to be wowed by a big-time atmosphere. Last season, their first weekend series was on the road at Auburn. Two years ago, they started things off by traveling all the way out to the west coast to take on Long Beach State. And three years ago, they took on Texas A&M to begin their campaign. Will Houston be far more talented than Holy Cross? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk.
The degree of difficulty only goes up from there. After a midweek game up I-45 to take on always-tough Sam Houston State, the Cougars will head out west to play three games against Cal State Fullerton. Spoiler alert: the Titans are going to pitch well again in 2018. Colton Eastman is a great guy to have to build a weekend rotation around, and with guys like Blake Workman, Brett Conine, Gavin Velasquez, and Erik Cha back, there’s plenty of proven experience around him. Even if they don’t produce any breakout stars on the mound, and you know that they will, they’re in pretty good shape.
After coming home for a midweek game against Texas Southern (another 2017 regional team, by the way), Houston will return to the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park after a short hiatus from the event, where they will take on Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt. Coming off a historic season for the program, the Wildcats very well might be better in 2018. MSU, meanwhile, looks poised to better their super regional result from a year ago now that their pitching staff is much healthier than it was late in 2017, and in Vanderbilt, you know what you’re going to get. They’re going to pitch well, they’re not going to beat themselves, and while they may not have the most explosive offense, they’re going to have a ton of depth in the lineup.
The following weekend, after playing two midweek games, the Cougars will welcome San Diego to Houston. The Toreros enjoyed a comeback season in 2017, going 35-18, their highest win total since 2013. They’ll have some pieces to replace, most notably power bats Hunter Mercado-Hood, Roman Garcia, and Riley Adams, but continuing with the theme of the Cougars running into some outstanding pitching in non-conference play, USD’s pitching staff should be quite good, with Paul Richan (5-2, 3.05), Nick Sprengel (9-1, 3.29), and Chris Murphy (3-4, 4.17) all back in the mix.
Don’t overlook the non-conference series lurking at the end of the schedule, either. To end the season, Houston has a home two-game set against Southeastern Louisiana, annually an at-large contender out of the Southland Conference. Led by preseason All-American Taylor Schwaner, the Lions will undoubtedly be upset-minded.
Whitting has proven time and again he knows which buttons to push to get his team into the best position to succeed in the postseason, and playing a tough non-conference schedule, as they will in 2018, is certainly a part of it.