Our free football previews continues with Houston, a school that has so much in common with BYU, you'd think they must have had played before (they haven't). They're both non-BCS schools that have enjoyed historical success with pass-happy schemes. They've both been subject to tons of realignment rumors as of late. They're both COUGARS. Should be an interesting game no?
Let's get at it.
How did Houston do last season?
Expectations were still fairly high in Houston, even after head coach Kevin Sumlin took his talents to Texas A&M. The had, after all, gone 13-1 and had beaten Penn State in a bowl game. The season started with a complete dumpster fire though, a 30-13 loss to FBS newcomer Texas State, which lead to the near immediate firing of offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth of all Houston fans. All things being equal, Texas State/Houston might have been the worst loss for any team during the year.
Things got a little better after Houston's 0-3 start (although losses to Louisiana Tech and UCLA are forgivable). The Cougars scored at least 28 points in every game the rest of the season except one, a forgettable 41-7 pounding at the hands of Tulsa. There were a few exciting highs, like a 35-14 win over Rice, or a 45-35 shootout over UTEP, and there were embarrassing lows, like the Tulsa game, or giving up an astounding 72 points in a 72-42 loss against SMU. The Cougars finished the season with a 5-7, 4-4 record, not good enough for a bowl. You could say this though, the Cougars were never boring. They were either going to be completely blown out, or they were going to score a bazillion points.
Bazillion points eh? That's relevant to my interests. Will they be scoring that many again next year?
It's possible, although the defense quality in The American should be a bit of a step up from CUSA. Houston hasn't settled on a QB choice yet, which doesn't bode well for an offense that relies on the passing game so heavily. David Piland is the incumbent, who knows the offense the best but was underwhelming last season, especially when it came to his decision making and propensity to turn the ball over. He'll be pushed by sophomore Bram Kohlhausen, junior college transfer Billy Cosh and true freshmen John O’Korn and Greg Ward. Piland probably has the inside track, given his playbook knowledge and because by all accounts he's been strong in offseason workouts, but the Cougars have options if he doesn't work out. If Houston is already staring at a huge hole in the standings by the time BYU comes around, don't be surprised to see a different name under center, even if Piland won the job out of camp.
The Cougars will have some depth at wideout, which is critical, given the emphasis their offensive scheme places on spreading the ball around. Houston returns Deontay Greenberry (47 receptions for 589 yards) and Larry McDuffey (28 for 382), along with junior Daniel Spencer (41 for 579), senior Xavier Maxwell (10 for 179), and JUCO transfer Markeith Ambles, to say nothing of potential freshman. When you add those options to an offensive line that returns four starers, you have a squad that should threaten to put up formidable passing numbers, so long as they can avoid turning the ball over.
A glaring question mark is going to be at running back. Perhaps the team's best skill player, Charles Sims, has transferred to West Virginia, where he will no doubt put up video game like numbers. Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow (466 yards) will have to pick up the slack, but replacing the explosiveness with Sims will be very difficult with the players on the roster. Houston will likely need to go with a more "by committee" approach with their running game.
What about their defense?
By just about every statistical measure, Houston had one of the worst defenses in all of college football last season. New DC David Gibbs will attempt to turn this unit around. Gibbs was most recently seen in the NFL, and hasn't been in the college ranks since his 2005 work with Auburn, so it will be interesting to see how he makes the transition back, especially with a squad that isn't as stocked with frontline talent. Granted, this isn't new for Houston, as their defense has given up more than 27 points per game every year but twice in 2000.
Juniors Eric Braswell and Joey Mbu will likely hold down spots at end and tackle on the defensive line, while Tomme Mark, junior Jeremiah Farley and redshirt freshman B.J. Singleton will battle it out for the last spot up front for another tackle spot. Other candidates at end include Cameron Malveaux, Desmond Pulliam, JUCO transfer Trevor Harris and sophomore Eric Eiland, who converted from defensive back. Houston could have some speed along the ends, but doesn't have depth in the middle.
The Cougars lose two linebackers from last year, and while you might normally think that losing players from one of the worst defenses in the country may not be a bad thing, replacing production at linebacker isn't going to be easy. The good news is that Derrick Matthews may be the best player on this entire defense, and after recording 126 tackles, 17.0 for loss last season, he could compete for all-conference honors.
Zach McMillan (51 tackles, 5 interceptions) and senior Thomas Bates will lead the defensive backs, and Trevon Stewart (126 tackles) returns at safety, but after losing DJ Hayden to the NFL, this unit may also struggle unless some new contributors step up in a big way.
What are some fun Houston facts?
The Cougar football team may not be as strong as it's been in years past, but that doesn't mean Houston doesn't have athletic teams worth celebrating. Their golf team has won 16 NCAA titles, the second-most of any NCAA school, while their basketball team made five Final Fours, (although none recently).
They also have a *team hand gesture*, and every team that has a team hand gesture is a little cool.
Famous alumni include: Bill Hicks, Kenny Rogers, Jim Parsons, Paul Wall and Jim Nantz.
From the wide world of sports, we have Michael Bourn, Clyde Drexler, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Kolb, Andre Ware, and all-time NCAA FBS record holder in career passing yards, Case Keenum.
What kind of season is Houston going to have, and can BYU win this game?
Houston seems to have a pretty wide gap between their ceiling and their floor. Their out of conference schedule is pretty manageable, with Southern, Rice, a road game against relative FBS newcomer UTSA, and BYU. If they beat their non-BYU squads, and find ways to get past Temple, Memphis, and either USF or SMU, they're at 6 wins at a bowl bid. Their passing offense is prolific enough that they have a puncher's chance of knocking off some other teams in the American, like Cincinnati, Rutgers, UCF, and yes, even BYU.
They will be putting extraordinary pressure on their passing game to win the day for them though, and they're unable to meet those high expectations, they could find themselves on the wrong end up multiple blowouts. Somewhere between 4-7 wins feels about right.
This game will be in Houston, and if BYU's defensive backs aren't able to get healthy or consistent, they could absolutely get upset. The Cougars have to like their chances of slowing the game down and attacking with their running game, and Jamaal Williams could and should have a big game. BYU absolutely will need to win this game, especially if they stumble in the early season, and I think their overwhelming physicality will carry the day for them, but I don't think this game will be a cakewalk either.
What do you think?