I think my 2009 season review did a pretty thorough job of exploring the improvements the Coogs need to make if they're going to have the conference-winning, ranked season they missed out on last year. Namely, they need to improve on defense.
About a month ago, ESPN's College Football Nation blog determined that "Houston needs better D." Really? In other news, the sky is blue! The issue for the Cougar defense isn't so much that it needs to improve as it is just how much improvement is needed. In Houston's case, the "how much" is a lot: the squad ended the season ranked 115th in rushing defense and 111th in total defense. If the Coogs can't do significantly better than that this season, they simply won't be worthy of a conference championship, a bowl victory or a season-ending top 25 ranking.
There are other areas of improvement I'd like to see this fall as well: the offense should run the ball more, if for no other reason than to milk the clock and give the defense time to rest. Special teams could use some work in the areas of punting and extra points. And the team, overall, needs to stay focused for every game and not allow momentum-killing letdown losses to occur. But none of these issues are as important as getting the defense to a point where it is at least respectable.
There are reasons to hope that the defense is indeed going to show improvement this fall. New defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is installing a 3-4 scheme that is supposed to be a better fit to the defense's personnel. Unlike last year, there are no true freshmen playing on the defensive line. Highly-regarded JUCO defenders such as DL Matangi Tonga and LB Sammy Brown are expected to provide some instant help up front. Senior LB Matt Nicholson is back from an injury that ended his season last year.
However, when the 2010 version of the UH defense nevertheless gives up four touchdowns and 345 yards (180 of them on the ground) to an FCS offense, as they did in Houston's 68-28 victory over the Texas State Bobcats last Saturday, there is still reason for concern.
To be fair, three of those scores and almost 200 of those total yards came in the second half, after Stewart had pulled his first-string defense and let the reserves, including a handful of true freshmen, play. The first-team defense allowed only 149 yards and one touchdown. They also forced four turnovers (one fumble, two interceptions and one stop on fourth down) and scored a touchdown of their own when Matt Nicholson returned an interception for 42 yards to the endzone. Nicholson also recovered a fumble and had 6 tackles; JUCO newcomer Sammy Brown had six tackles as well. LB Marcus McGraw was the star of the starting defense with eleven tackles and one sack. Given that the linebacking corps is the key to the 3-4 defense, it's great to see this kind of production.
All in all, the first team defense played admirably; I'm willing to overlook the 80-yard scoring drive that Texas State put together in the first quarter or the fact that the other heralded JUCO newcomer, Tonga, only recorded a single tackle (he might have been double-teamed; the two other starting defensive linemen, David Hunter and Tyrone Campbell, notched four tackles apiece). But the performance of the reserves in the second half still gives me pause. Granted, they were second- and third-stringers - some were true freshmen - and granted, the coaching staff itself admitted that the defensive strategy in the second half was "vanilla," as they wanted to see what the reserves could do in game situations. But if the Houston defense is to improve this fall, these backups are going to have to step it up when called upon to do so.
Anyway, I'll err on the side of optimism, since it really is too early to make judgments as to the 2010 defense. It takes time to adjust to a new defensive strategy, after all, and Stewart was probably also being conservative in his playcalling so as not to reveal anything specific to upcoming opponents UTEP or UCLA. We'll know a lot more about the defense after Friday's game against UTEP.
There were, on the other hand, no such concerns about the offense. There had been fretting among some UH faithful that the departure of last year's offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, to Oklahoma State and the promotion of Jason Phillips to take his place would result in a disruption to the offense's efficiency. That was clearly not the case last Saturday, as the Cougars scored seven touchdowns before halftime. The second string offense led by Cotton Turner scored another two touchdowns of their own in the second half, and both strings combined for just under 500 yards of total offense.
Yes, I know they were playing against an FCS defense. And I still would like to see them run the ball and control the clock more, especially since the first team offense held the ball for a mere 7 minutes and 21 seconds in the first half. But otherwise the offense hasn't missed a beat. Case Keenum was 17 of 22 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns before he was pulled at halftime. He had two interceptions, the first of which was tipped but the second of which was clearly telegraphed, but I'll chalk that up to opening-game rust. Bryce Beall appears to have recovered from the injuries that slowed him down last season; he carried the ball five times for 48 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad for one half's worth of work. The big surprise at running back was last-minute JUCO transfer Michael Hayes. His 18 yards and one touchdown on four carries might not sound like much until you consider that he also caught a 40-yard touchdown pass on his very first touch as a Houston Cougar. And although I usually try to avoid making superlative statements, I truly believe that the Coogs' starting wide receiver corps of Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, James Cleveland and Kierre Johnson is as good as any starting receiving corps in all of FBS.
Special teams were a mixed bag: Matt Hogan missed two extra point attempts, but Jordan Mannisto's and Richie Leone's kickoffs into the endzone were a thing of beauty. Thanks to the offense's efficiency, the kickers didn't get to attempt a field goal and only punted twice. I would rather have not seen the bobcats return the second punt of the night 50 yards, but the game was almost over at that point so it's not a big deal.
So now that their first game is out of the way, what can the Cougars be expected to accomplish this fall? It's always interesting take a look at how other pigskin prognosticators think of the Coogs, and in that regard expectations for the 2010 University of Houston football team are pretty high. Six major preseason publications as well as NBC and CBS expect the Cougars to repeat as Conference USA Western Division. Sports Illustrated expects the Cougars to notch a 9-3 regular season record and win the C-USA title, while SouthernCollegeSports.come foresees a 10-2 regular season record for the Coogs. Among the computers, Sagarin's preseason ranking gives the Cougars a rating of 72.17, which when taking the home field advantage into account implies a 9-3 season (with losses to Texas Tech, UCLA and Southern Miss on the road). The Congrove system at CollegeFootballPoll.com predicts that the Coogs will go 10-2 during the regular season, but that one of those losses will be to SMU and that the Cougars will therefore not win the conference's Western Division.
So that's what everybody else thinks. Here's what I think, game by game:
Sept. 10, UTEP: Probable win.
It won't be easy. Last year Miner WB Trevor Vittatoe and RB Donald Buckram made life miserable for the Coogs, and both are back this year (Buckram was held out of last week's game due to injury but should be ready for Houston). But I think the revenge factor will make the difference in this one, especially before a rowdy Friday night crowd at Robertson Stadium as well as an ESPN TV audience.
Sept. 18, at UCLA: Toss-up.
I really couldn't get a good feel for the Bruins in spite of the fact that I watched some of their game against Kansas State last Saturday. The Cougars might be a better team on a neutral field, especially considering the issues the Bruins are having on defense, but playing at the Rose Bowl will be an equalizing factor so I'm going to call this a toss-up. This is a huge game for the Coogs, however, and it's also my designated road trip for the season.
Sept. 25, Tulane: Definite Win.
Tulane hasn't had a winning season since 2003 and there's nothing to suggest they'll break that streak this year, especially since they struggled to defeat FCS school Southeastern Louisiana last week.
Oct. 2, Bye.
I think one of the reasons the Coogs struggled last year was because their bye week came so early in the season. The team then had to go on a brutal stretch of 11 games without a break, and that wore down on players (especially on the defensive side of the ball). This year's bye week comes four games into the season - a much better spot.
Oct. 9, Mississippi State: Probable Win.
The Bulldogs are an improving program that features SEC talent. They dismantled Memphis last weekend and they are going to be tough to beat when they meet the Coogs. On the other hand, the Cougars are coming off a bye week and they're playing at home. It's going to be a hard-fought game, but I think Houston has the edge.
Oct. 16, at Rice. Probable Win.
I say "probable" because, as every UH fan has come to learn, a victory over Rice is never assured. The Owls will not be as bad as they were last year and they always give the Cougars their best shot. That's especially true when the game is played at Rice Stadium: the Coogs lost in 2008 and barely eked out a win in 2006.
Oct. 23, at SMU: Toss-up.
SMU looked pretty good in their 27-35 loss at Texas Tech on Sunday, and by most accounts figure to be Houston's toughest competition for the Conference USA West crown. Although the Cougars have won the last two times they've played at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, both games were nail-biters. This is a crucial game for the Cougars, but a victory is far from certain.
Oct. 30, at Memphis: Probable win.
This is going to be tough, as back-to-back games on the road always are, and the fact that Memphis is coming off a bye week doesn't help either. The Tigers will give the Coogs their best shot, and the outcome of the previous week's game against SMU will certainly factor into Houston's mental condition. But 2010 is going to be a rebuilding year for a Tiger team that only won two games last year and is adjusting to new head coach Larry Porter, while the Cougars are clearly the team with more physical talent.
Nov. 5, UCF: Probable Win.
This is a repeat script of the UTEP game: Friday night, on ESPN, with the revenge motive in play. The Golden Knights might be good this year, but I don't think the Cougars are going to allow them to win at home.
Nov. 13, Tulsa: Probable Win.
As I watched last Sunday's wild affair between Tulsa and East Carolina, I realized that the Golden Hurricane is a lot like the Cougars: lots of offense, but absolutely no defense. This game is going to be high-scoring, but I give the edge to the Coogs because they're playing at home and also because Tulsa head coach Todd Graham makes lousy game-day coaching decisions.
Nov. 20, at Southern Miss: Probable Loss.
The Golden Eagles are Houston's CUSA nemesis, and the Cougars have never won a game in Hattiesburg. While I can't say I was too impressed with USM in the drubbing they received at the hands of South Carolina last Thursday, they won't be nearly as bad by the time they get the Coogs late in the season. USM owns the Cougars at Roberts Field until proven otherwise.
Nov. 27, at Texas Tech: Probable Loss.
The thing about revenge games is that they work both ways. It will be cold, the Lubbock crowd will be loud and hostile, this game will be on national TV and the Red Raiders will be looking to avenge last year's loss to a Cougar team that is once again playing back-to-back games on the road.
If the Cougars win all the games they are supposed to win and split the toss-ups, they will end the regular season with a 9-3 record, which is my official prediction for the coming season. The only question in this scenario is whether one of those losses comes against SMU and costs the Cougars a division crown and a shot at the conference title.
Of course, if the defense doesn't improve, nine wins might simply be out of the question.