I realize kickoff is only hours away at this point, so I guess I'm better late than never in getting this season's preview up.
Last season was a pretty good one for the University of Houston Cougars. The team adjusted to a new coaching staff and fought through the adversity caused by Hurricane Ike to win eight games, including victories over two ranked teams for first time since 1984 and their first bowl victory since 1980. The team hopes to build on last year's success to have an even better season in 2009. At the top of the to-do list for the team is to win Conference USA's Western Division, contend for the C-USA Championship, and maybe, just maybe, be under consideration as a so-called "BCS buster."Are the pieces in place for any of those goals to be reached?
When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, the answer is most likely "yes." The Cougars return eight starters, including almost all of the skill position players from an offense that finished second in the nation last season in total offense with almost 563 yards per game. That's a pretty impressive feat, considering that going into the 2008 season the conventional wisdom was that the adjustment to a new coaching philosophy and the lack of experience at wide receiver would cause the offense to take a step backward.
The Cougars will be led by junior quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season with 403.2 all-purpose yards per game and was named Conference USA offensive player of the year. Most of his weapons return, including running back Bryce Beall, who ran for 1,247 yards, caught for another 500 yards, and had 17 touchdowns in a surprising freshman debut, and a bevy of highly capable wide receivers, such as Tyron Carrier (80 receptions for 1,026 yards and 9 touchdowns last year), Patrick Edwards (back in action after a devastating leg injury against Marshall last season) Chaz Rodriguez and Kierrie Johnson. And if that weren't enough, it's likely that the offensive lineup will be joined by highly-rated freshmen such as running back Charles Sims and wide receiver A.J. Dugat, who was just cleared to play earlier this week.
There are concerns about the abilities of the offensive line, which lost three starters from last year's team. The line will be anchored by senior center Carl Barnett and, while there is depth and experience at all five positions, the big question is how quickly this fall's new lineup can come together as a cohesive unit in order to open lanes for runners and protect Keenum (last year's line gave up 27 sacks, which was an improvement over the 34 sacks given up in 2007 but was still too many). Needless to say, an injury to Case Keenum would be a devastating blow to the offense. While backup quarterback Cotton Turner isn't exactly horrible - I've watched him in practice - he simply can't move the offense like Keenum.
So that's the 2009 University of Houston offense, a.k.a. the "good news." Now it's time for the "not-so-good" news, i.e. the defense.
Let's face it: the 2008 University of Houston defense wasn't what could really be considered "good." They gave up over 413 yards per game, enough to be ranked 100th (out of 119 FBS teams) in total defense and, in surrendering almost 31 points per game, almost as bad (91st) in scoring defense. The defense's complete meltdown against Rice last November, in particular, still sticks in the collective craw of the UH faithful. And that was with a defensive line that featured experienced players All-Conference standout Philip Hunt (18.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks) and Tate Stewart and a secondary that featured several veterans such as Kenneth Fontennette and Earnest Miller. With those players gone, and with many of the holes they left behind being plugged by transfers and true freshman, I simply cannot expect this defense to be any better in 2009. In fact, I fully expect it to be worse.
The only returning starter on the defensive line is junior tackle Isaiah Thompson. He'll be joined by returning lettermen Tyrell Graham and David Hunter and a plethora of true (as in, straight-out-of-high-school) freshmen, including Radermon Scypion, Zeke Riser, Tyrone Campbell, Kelvin King, DeAnthony Sims and walk-on Ameen Behbahani. While the story on some of these incoming freshmen is that they are talented and were highly-recruited, the fact remains that they are probably undersized and definitely inexperienced at this level. The defensive line is going to be the weakest link in the defense this fall.
Things look a little better at linebacker, which returns senior experience in C.J. Cavness and Matt Nicholson as well as sophomore Marcus McGraw, who had an excellent debut last season (he led the team in tackles). Speed and depth are issues at this position, however. The secondary will be led by senior cornerback Brandon Brinkley, who had 74 tackles and four interceptions last year. Opposing quarterbacks will likely avoid throwing his way and instead try to pick on safeties Carson Blackmon and Nick Saenz. There's experience in the secondary, but they'll need help from the defensive line in the form of a pass rush if they're going to have a better overall season than they did last year.
One positive aspect of last year's team is that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff did a decent job exorcising away the "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, penalties and bad special teams play that had plagued the Cougars under the Briles regime. Special teams were markedly improved last season - punter Chase Turner would have been one of the nation's higher-rated punters had the offense given him more opportunities to show his talents last season - and the Cougars were no longer among the top ten most penalized teams in the nation last season. The Coogs still need to work on ball control, however; last year the team gave the ball away 28 times but recovered fumbles and interceptions only 22 times for a -6 turnover margin.
Unfortunately, last season the team showed a tendency to start out slowly and quickly find themselves trailing by several scores in the first half of games. Sometimes they were able to mount furious second-half comebacks in order to win games, as they did against Alabama-Birmingham and UTEP. On other occasions, such as against Colorado State and Marshall, those rallies fell short. I'm willing to attribute last year's slow starts to the adjustments required of a new coaching staff and philosophy or the mental disruption caused by Hurricane Ike. But this pattern simply cannot manifest itself again this season; the coaching staff needs to prepare this team to play for every game and they need to come out of the tunnel swinging.
The Cougars' schedule starts out rather tough. After a season-opening tune-up game against FCS opponent Northwestern State, the Cougars have to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to play an Oklahoma State team that is ranked 9th in the preseason AP poll. After a well-placed bye week, the Coogs return to Houston to play Texas Tech in what should be a sold-out Robertson Stadium. The Cougars then go on a formidable three-game road trip to El Paso to play the revenge-minded UTEP Miners, then to Starkville, Mississippi to play an improving Mississippi State team, and finally to New Orleans to play Tulane. The schedule then lightens up a bit, as the Coogs play four of their final six games in Houston. The Cougars have back-to-back home games against SMU and Southern Miss, then hit the road to play Tulsa and Central Florida, and then return to Robertson Stadium to close out their season against Memphis and Rice. However, none of these games will be gimmes: Southern Miss has historically given the Cougars fits, Tulsa will be seeking to avenge last season's 70-30 thumping at the hands of the Coogs, and anybody who thinks Rice is an easy win for the Coogs wasn't paying attention last year, or the year before, or the year before that.
What does the national sports media expect from the Cougars this fall? Overall, previews for Houston have generally been positive, which a consensus emerging that, due to its prolific offense, the Cougars are in for a pretty good season. Of the college football preseason magazines, Dave Campbell's Texas Football predicts that Coogs will finish 10-2 and win Conference USA. Athlon, Lindy's and The Sporting News all expect the Cougars to, at the very least, win their division. NBC Sports and CBS Sports are also in agreement that the Cougars will win Conference USA West.
Several college football websites are also big on the Coogs. CollegeFootballNews.com envisions a 10-win regular season for Houston, with an undefeated record in conference. SouthernCollegeSports.com concurs with that assessment, as does a columnist for bleacherreport.com who also foresees the Coogs defeating East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship game. The Congrove Computer Ranking system at CollegeFootballPoll.com (which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two games 9 out of the last 15 seasons) is only slightly less optimistic, predicting a 9-3 record for Houston with a loss to Tulsa that would leave the Coogs 2nd in their division. The Quad blog at The New York Times, which provides a thorough write-up for the Coogs, says that Houston is the 30th-best team in FBS, also foresees a 9-3 regular season campaign, and believes a conference championship is in the cards as well.
Sports Illustrated ranks the Coogs #57 to start the season and envisions an 8-4 overall record, with a 6-2 conference record and a second-place finish behind UTEP in C-USA's Western Division. Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings, meanwhile, have the Coogs slotted 66th with a starting rating of 70.69. When other team's ratings as well as home field advantage are taken into account, this implies that a 8-4 record (with losses to Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Tulsa) is predicted for Houston.
So what do I expect? Overall, I think the Cougars are definitely a team on the rise, and there are few teams in the country, even among the BCS elite, that will be able to stop its offense. But while the offense can score points on just about anybody, the defense, likewise, can give up points to almost anybody. The squad simply has too many weaknesses, especially on the defensive line, for me to expect that they'll be able to effectively stop the run or mount a pass rush, and, unless this defense finds a way to play well beyond its abilities, opposing teams with any offensive confidence whatsoever are probably going to be able to score at will. The Cougars are going to be involved in several 56-49 -type games this fall, and whether the Cougars come out ahead or behind will depend on things like turnovers and special teams performance.
I'm going to go on record as predicting an eight-win regular season for the Coogs. I think they will lose their matchups against Big XII teams Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and I also think that road losses to two of Mississippi State, UTEP and Tulsa will occur as well. Southern Miss will also be very tough, but I think the home-field advantage will give the Coogs the edge. This final regular season record of 8-4 (6-2 in conference) will likely earn the Coogs second place in their division as well as a fifth-consecutive bowl appearance.
If the defense shows improvement over the course of the season, then 2010 could be the season that UH fans are waiting for. But right now, the team is still a year away.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to head over to Robertson Stadium. It's tailgating time!
UPDATE: The Coogs took care of business this evening, cruising to a 55-7 victory over Northwestern State.