The UH/AAC Report

Houston plagued with injuries and "Jacket Gate," will now have a shot at the AAC West division title

Houston is set to play Memphis for the AAC West Division title. UH Cougar Football Facebook

Houston 48, Tulane 17

Getting a win against Tulane for the opportunity to compete in the AAC West division title came at high cost for Houston on Thursday night. They depended on Memphis to beat SMU last Friday, since SMU holds the tie breaker advantage over Houston. Memphis delivered, and will now face Houston on Friday for the division championship. But Houston will go into this important game without the leading scoring QB in the FBS in D’Eriq King, and distracted from the incident between Ed Oliver and Head Coach Major Applewhite. Here’s how it all went down.

The Cougar defense made a surprise appearance, forcing The Green Wave to consecutive 3-and-outs to begin the game and played pretty well throughout. Houston struck first offensively about halfway through the first quarter with a 21-yard touchdown run by RB Patrick Carr, who had a career night with 18 carries, 139 rushing yards, and 2 TDs. Tulane quickly answered on their next possession with a TD of their own, but missed the extra point. On the following Houston possession, King added another play to his highlight reel with a 75 yard run but was pushed out of bounds only three yards from the end zone, allowing Carr to easily punch in their second TD of the night. Things were clicking pretty well for Houston at this point; they were running the ball effectively, and were creating turnovers from a capable Tulane offense. The half ended 31-9 Houston, and gave everyone at TDECU stadium a good feeling about rolling into Memphis next week for a chance at the AAC West Division title.

But Houston’s eventful season made a grim turn at the end of the first half.

King handed the ball to his running back on a routine play and fell to the ground on a non-contact injury. He was on pace to compete for the FBS record of 63 touchdowns in a season by a QB, but it was later reported that he had suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee leaving him out for the remainder of the season. An enormous blow for the Cougars.

Shortly after, the event later dubbed “Jacket Gate” took place. Oliver sat his fourth game in a row after injuring his knee at Navy. As the team was headed into the locker room, Applewhite aggressively asked Oliver to take off a jacket that was meant for active players by tugging it off him in the wide open for everyone to see. Oliver confronted Applewhite by yelling at him, all while having to be restrained by his teammates and coaches. It was a terrible look for both Oliver and Applewhite.

Oliver, only months away from millions and projected in the top five 2019 NFL draft picks, now has to explain to every scout and coach that is interested in his capabilities as to what happened that night. You can make the case that Oliver must always follow the rules like every other player. But you can also rebuttal with saying that Oliver isn’t just any other player. With the amount of attention he has brought to UH, his playmaking ability, his loyalty to the city, and his high draft value, a player like Oliver only comes to Houston once every other generation. The last player from Houston to be drafted with this much star power was Heisman trophy winner Andre Ware in 1990, who was picked by the Detroit Lions seventh overall. A UH legend.

It’s easy to speculate that Applewhite has been frustrated with Oliver about his game day availability. This frustration was surely increased in the pregame warm ups, where Oliver was openly jumping around with his team mates and even running routes. Oliver raised many eyebrows, making the severity of his injury even more questionable.

The ultimate loser in “Jacket Gate” is the university. The football program has inched its way to relevancy in the last seven years, slowly landing high caliber recruits from the city that are persuaded to stay local. After this incident, coaches at other schools will use it as anti UH propaganda, convincing potential players that their program respects them unlike Applewhite. As if Houston born talent didn’t have enough players going to power five conference schools already.

Whatever the rule was, it could have been addressed as aggressively as Applewhite wanted to in the privacy of the locker room just a few seconds later. Houston has bigger problems than enforcing a jacket rule on national television, like filling up TDECU stadium to 40,000 people consistently, or beating SMU.

UH went on to blow out Tulane 48-17 in a game that should have elevated Houston into being the team that would potentially beat UCF for the AAC Conference title. But the injury to King and the confrontation between Applewhite and Oliver reigned supreme in the headlines throughout the city and nation.

Houston will now have to go to Memphis on Friday and try to stop the second best RB in the FBS in Darrell Henderson. The Tigers defense looked stout against SMU by stopping their run effectively and creating several turnovers. This is also widely considered a rivalry game between the two programs. Tigers offensive linemen, Tevon Tate, shared his thoughts about UH by saying, “I don’t think they’re anything special. I think it’s a bunch of front running guys who think that they’re the best to ever play football.” The Houston native also added, “That’s what everybody thinks until they play Memphis.”

Inserting Ed Oliver into the defense here would be substantial, but nobody really knows the extent of “Jacket Gate” and his injury better than Applewhite and himself. UH will more than likely go with true freshman Clayton Tune at QB, who was considered the backup QB to King all season. The Carrollton, Texas native only played twice this season, once against TSU in a blowout win, and last week after King hurt his knee. Regardless, The Liberty Bowl kickoff is at 11 a.m. on Friday for the AAC West Division title.

Memphis 28, SMU 18

Houston depended heavily on Memphis to win on the road because of their disastrous loss to SMU three weeks ago. From the very beginning, Memphis’ defense had a mentality that the AAC West division was going to have to go through them. The Tigers threw an interception halfway through the first quarter, but the Tigers’ defense held SMU on a fourth down run attempt in the red zone leaving them with no points and a turnover. This seemed to set the tone for Memphis overall, where just a few minutes later they recovered a fumble from a Mustang fake punt. This turnover was costly, where QB Brady White threw a spectacular TD to WR Joey Magnifico. The second half was explosive, and it always seems to start with RBs Darrell Henderson Patrick Taylor. They both combined for 182 rushing yards and two total TDs. Memphis eliminated SMU from title contention and gave UH a much needed fresh breath of air. The Tigers will host the Cougars in the Liberty bowl  for the AAC West division and a shot at the AAC Conference Championship.

UCF 38, Cincinnati 13

The No. 11 Golden Knights march on to their 23rd victory in a row after they handled No. 24 Cincinnati at home in front of 47, 795 fans. It wasn’t a pretty start for UCF, where QB McKenzie Milton fumbled on the very first play in the end zone only to be recovered by the Bearcats and converted into a defensive TD. Cincinnati’s defense proved to be a force and kept them in much of the game, but the offense couldn’t connect on a couple of field goals as UCF inevitably began to score. Milton slowly took over and went 13 for 25, threw for 268 yards, threw 3 TDs, and rushed for a TD. The UCF defense began to suffocate Cincinnati. They accounted for three sacks, four QB hits, and seven tackles for loss. Trsyten Hill is a player to watch, who had 3 sacks and four tackles for loss all on his own. UCF will continue to defend their unrelenting win streak at USF, while Cincinnati falls to 9-2 and will host ECU.

Other Notable Results in the AAC

Temple 27, USF 17

ECU 55, UConn 21

Navy 37, Tulsa 29

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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