Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 football outlook: The University of Houston

With apologizes to Andrew Williams, "The Most Wonderful Time of The Year" is not Christmas, but rather the start of college football season. And it's finally upon us! In less than a week, The University of Houston Cougars will make a trip up to Eugene, Oregon to face the University of Oregon Ducks.

The Cougars, under fifth-year head coach Art Briles, would like to repeat the success of a season ago, when they won ten games for the first time since 1990, captured the Conference USA championship for the first time since 1996, and played an exciting game against Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks in the Liberty Bowl. It would have been nice to have won that one - a victory would have broken a bowl losing streak dating all the way back to 1980 and probably would have given Houston their first season-ending top-25 ranking since 1990 - but considering where the UH program has been for so long the 2006 season can only be considered a huge step forward.

Repeating the feat in 2007 won't be as easy, however. Several seniors who made last year's success possible - notably, quarterback Kevin Kolb - are gone and replacing them is going to be tough. They're not getting any breaks to start the season, either; the Ducks are a good team and they're going to be tough to beat in the loud and inhospitable confines of Autzen Stadium. Houston is a 14.5-point underdog in this one.

This isn't to say that the Coogs are devoid of talent. To the contrary, they still have formidable weapons on offense, including running back Anthony "Quick Six" Alridge, reliable receivers like Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey, and possible NFL picks on the offensive line in the form of Dustin Dickinson and Jeff Akeroyd. On defense, Houston returns talented players such as all-conference player Ell Ash on a defensive line that could be C-USA's best, solid linebackers such as Brandon Pahulu and Cody Lubojasky, and another all-conference selection, Kenneth Fontenette, in the secondary. As a whole, the team appears to exhibit a level of strength and athleticism that they've lacked in the past. Briles's recruiting, especially as far as the lines are concerned, seems to be paying off.

Nevertheless, question marks remain. And the biggest one is the quarterback position. Kolb left some pretty big shoes to fill, and it's up to sophomore Blake Joseph and redshirt freshman Case Keenum to step into them.
Joseph has a strong arm but oftentimes puts too much zip on his shorter passes. Keenum has appeared to move the offense rather well in scrimmages but lack's Joseph's throwing strength, and neither quarterback has appeared to be especially mobile during scrimmage. These are the only two quarterbacks on scholarship; senior Al Peña, a transfer from Oklahoma State, abruptly left the team a few days ago, after it became clear that he was struggling to learn the Briles offense, to assist his father with coaching duties at Hidalgo High School in the Valley.

As much talent as the offensive line contains, there's a hole at center left by the departure of Sterling Doty. Bad snaps have apparently been a concern during practices; I witnessed a couple myself at a scrimmage I observed a couple of weeks ago. Depth is an issue as well: SirVincent Rogers is out for the season with an injury, Byron Alfred left the team after last season to pursue a law degree, a scary incident regarding Jerrod Butler forced him to give up football (the UH football training staff deserves a big hand for saving this young man's life!) and the well-being of Sebastian Vollmer (it seems like any discussion on the UH message boards regarding this guy includes the phrase "if he stays healthy") remains a question.

The once-woeful Cougar defense has shown improvement over the last couple of years, and 2007 could be the best defense the program has had in a long time. But there are still question marks on this side of the ball as well. As big as the linebackers are, they are not particularly speedy. The Coogs had trouble generating a pass rush last season, and a lack of improvement this year will be a glaring shortfall. This is because there's a lot of youth in a secondary that is going to miss last year's playmakers, Willie Gaston and Will Gulley. Fontenette's a gamer, but won't be able to carry the load by himself. And what of the "Unholy Trinity" of penalties, turnovers and poor special teams play that plagued the Coogs last year (and the year before that, and the year before that...)?

Then there's the schedule, which isn't quite as advantageous as the 2006 slate that saw the Cougars play eight of their twelve games within the city of Houston. This year, the Coogs face tough out-of-conference road trips to Alabama-Tuscaloosa as well as Oregon, back-to-back road trips on two separate occasions, and they won't even get to play their first home game until September 22nd, when they host a formidable Colorado State squad. The Coogs also host programs on the rise in East Carolina and SMU, and road trips to Tulsa, Texas-El Paso and Alabama-Birmingham (the University of Houston has never won a game in the state of Alabama, and UAB offensive coordinator and former UH head coach Kim Helton certainly has this game circled on his calendar) will be tough. Even the annual showdown against crosstown rival Rice isn't a gimme, as UH fans are painfully aware.

So how well can the Cougars be expected to do this fall? It's always fun to take a look at the national pigskin pundits to see how outsiders view the UH program. This year, preseason perceptions of the program look pretty positive. The website, which uses the Congrove Computer system that has accurately predicted the Coog's final regular season record within two games eight out of the last 13 seasons, foresees the Cougars winning an eye-opening eleven games this fall. "Southern Miss and Houston are each expected to dominate their respective divisions and meet in Houston for the conference title for the second year in-a-row," they write. They foresee the Cougars ending the regular season with a #16 ranking. As much as I'd love for them to be right, I'm a bit skeptical., on the other hand, foresees a 7-5 campaign for Houston. Without Kolb, Jackie Battle and Vincent Marshall on offense, "the Cougar caravan could face a temporary detour in 2007." Predicting a second-place finish behind Tulsa in CUSA's Western Division, they write:
The season will be a success if ... Houston wins the West again. It won’t be easy with the Tulsa game on the road and so much uncertainty at some key spots, but after winning the title, not getting back to the championship game will be a major letdown. Winning the division would prove the program wasn’t all Kevin Kolb, while an also-ran season, or worse yet, a non-bowl year, would be a disastrous step back. splits the difference, expecting the Cougars to notch a 9-3 record this season. They report that, if Blake Joseph (or Case Keenum, for that matter) is able to provide strong leadership and makes effective use of the considerable talent remaining on offense, and if the defensive line and linebackers ("the best front in the league," they say) are able to overpower their opponents, Houston can repeat as CUSA West champions and go back to a bowl for the third straight year. But if things don't go so well?
This team has too much talent to drop to far in the league standings, but a drop into 3rd place in the West would make for major disappointment. The defensive secondary lack of experience is exposed early in non-conference games with Oregon, Colorado State, and Alabama, providing CUSA opposition with an area to focus on when attacking the Houston defense.
Sports Illustrated predicts that the Coogs will go 8-4 this fall and finish second in CUSA West behind Tulsa. Their Team Preview for UH notes that the defense "made strides last season but was outrageously vulnerable on third downs (47 percent efficiency by opponents, 110th in the nation). After shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5, the defense should be better — it has to be since it will carry the load while the offense jells." On offense, the Coogs "have more than enough talent to compete for a berth in the conference championship game" in spite of losing Kolb. "You can pencil in a bowl game," the SI writeup continues, "but the difference between a seven-win team and a nine- or 10-win season will depend on the defense."

Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings place the Coogs 77th in the nation, with a rating of 67.96. When the ratings of opposing teams as well as the home field advantage are taken into account, his ratings imply an 8-4 season for the Cougars. Last year
Sagarin started Houston at #89 and finished at #54. His 2006 preseason rankings implied an 8-4 regular season for the Coogs as well, so he wasn't far off in that regard. Hopefully his system will provide a similar level of accuracy for Houston this season. The preseason CBS Sports 120 poll places the Cougars 62nd; their rankings would imply that the Cougars will enjoy an 9-2 record over their Division I-A (er, Bowl Subdivision) opponents.

The preseason magazines are generally showing a lot of love for the Cougars; Lindy's, The Sporting News, Phil Steele and Street & Smith all foresee Houston successfully defending their Western Division crown; Athlon expects the Coogs to finish behind Tulsa. The Associated Press expects the Cougars to finish atop the Western Division, as do USA Today and's sportswriters. Seven of ESPN's twelve "experts" expect the Cougars to reclaim the Western Division title; only two, however, foresee the Cougars repeating as conference champions.

Indeed, the national sports media took notice of Houston's success last season, and expect the Coogs to do well again in 2007. But what do I think?

A year ago, I predicted that the Cougars would win eight regular season games. I wasn't too far off the mark; the Coogs won nine games en route to their conference championship. I'd love to see the Coogs notch eight wins during the regular season again this year; anything above eight wins would be outstanding. But I just can't get past the quarterback situation; until proven otherwise, I think this is the biggest weakness facing the team right now. The offensive line is a concern of mine as well; the center is still an unsettled question, as is depth. On defense, I have concerns about the secondary; if the front is as good as advertised they will hopefully do a better job putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, but I have to see it to believe it. And then there's the Unholy Trinity: walk-on punter Chase Turner seems to be the real deal, so hopefully special teams will show improvement this fall, but the number of turnovers and penalties needs to be reduced. Finally, the Coogs have an annoying habit of dropping at least one game every season that they're not supposed to lose (see Rice, 2004; SMU, 2005, Louisiana-Lafayette, last year).

So I'm going to go on record as predicting seven wins for the Cougars in 2007: they will likely lose to Oregon and Alabama and likely defeat Tulane, Rice and next-door neighbor Texas Southern. I see them winning two of their remaining home slate of Colorado State, East Carolina, SMU and Marshall, but dropping two of their remaining road slate of UAB, UTEP and Tulsa. A 7-5 record would probably not be what the UH faithful have in mind, especially coming off last season's success, and it probably wouldn't be good enough for a second-consecutive Western Division crown. But it would be a winning record, and it would probably be good enough for a third-straight bowl appearance. Truth be told, that might not be a bad thing as the Coogs enter the post-Kolb era, and it might set things up for an even better 2008.

I plan to make at least six UH games this season. I have to miss the Rice game for a wedding (I still can't believe that Lori's cousin, who is probably a bigger Cougar fan than I am, agreed with his fiancé to hold his ceremony on that date!), but I will travel to see the Coogs play Tulane in New Orleans. Of course, this is all contingent on the fact that I don't get shipped overseas again like I did last fall...

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