Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gratuitious Linkfest

As we bid farewell to September and take the quarter-turn into the three-month stretch of 2010, I thought I'd share a few links that I found interesting or amusing.

The airline mergers continue; Southwest is acquiring fellow low-cost carrier AirTran. Is this good news for travelers? Yes, for some, especially those who hate AirTran's baggage fees or who fly to or through Atlanta. Probably not for others, such as those who fly from Orlando or Baltimore.

Last spring we there was concern that North America's monarch butterfly population was decimated. Now there's evidence it might be rebounding. Perhaps we'll find out when the butterflies pass through town on their way to Mexico. That should occur any day now.

There's a reason the lottery is called the "stupid tax." Don't believe me? Try it for yourself. You'll never win.

How to write a scientific article for a MSM website. (Hence, the need for warning labels.)

This kid really, really hates Auburn University.

RIP, Mike Celizic. I enjoyed reading his college football columns and even linked to them on occasion. Another tribute here.

Also RIP George Blanda. He was a bit before my time, but I still knew him as the guy who led the Houston Oilers to the AFL's first two championships in 1960 and 1961.

Jarrett has a good discussion about the often-misunderstood relationship between urban density and transit use.

The latest conference realignment rumor involves TCU to the Big East. Nothing about conference realignment surprises me anymore, but I'll believe this one when I see it.

The 2010 edition of the Houston Press's Best of Houston is out. I'll definitely have to try out some of the restaurants they praise.

World War One has finally come to an end, just in case you were wondering.

These maps showing race and ethnicity of major US cities are truly fascinating (they're based on 2000 census data; different colors indicate different races and ethnicities; the darker or bolder the color, the denser the respective population). They tell us that, even at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, our cities are still heavily segregated (this map of Detroit is particularly stark). For the sake of comparison, I'd really like to see if the person who put these maps together creates new maps when the 2010 census becomes available. What will Houston's 2010 map look like? More interestingly, what about New Orleans?

Meet ConquistaDora the Explorer. Yes, I laughed. And yes, I felt guilty about laughing.

Has Dubai learned its lesson? It appears that the Emirate has weathered the worst of its financial storm, but time will tell if it adopts a more sustainable development policy going forward.

What if the government gave us all a receipt when we filed our annual tax return? Would it help people better understand the nature of the federal budget and the ramifications of the tax and spending cuts that seem to be so politically popular these days?

That's all for now. I'll probably be taking a break from blogging for a few weeks. Enjoy October (and, hopefully, the cooler weather)!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Houston 42, Tulane 23

The weather was unbearable. The game wasn't pretty at times. But coming off last weekend's debacle in Pasadena, the Cougars did what they needed to do: get a win.

First, the heat: according to the weather app on my Droid, at kickoff the temperature was 90 and the "feels like" temperature (factoring the humidity) was 95. Inside Robertson Stadium, an enclosed place full of concrete and aluminum that reflects heat, the temperature at kickoff was doubtlessly about 100. Although the game was officially a sellout (32,007), many fans clearly did not use their tickets because of the heat (as well as a 30 percent chance of rain, which mercifully waited until after the game was over). A large percentage of fans who did show up left during or right after halftime; I even had Lori come and pick up Kirby at the half because he was wilting in the oppressive heat.

As for the game itself: true freshman Terrance Broadway got his first start as a college quarterback and did decently, completing 19 of 28 passes for 174 yards and rushing 11 times for another 21 yards. He led the Cougars to a 28-14 lead at halftime. However, Broadway also threw an interception and fumbled twice; his ability to run gives the offense an added weapon but the coaching staff needs to work with him on his ball handling abilities. Houston's star offensive player was running back Bryce Beall; he gained 124 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.

Nevertheless, the Cougars stalled in the second half and allowed the Green Wave to get back into the game. Midway through the fourth quarter the Cougars were holding on to a precarious three-point lead. But the Coogs stepped up when they needed to do so: Beall broke off a 25-yard touchdown run late in the fourth to give the Cougars some breathing room, and cornerback Loyce Means intercepted Tulane quarterback Kevin Moore twice - one of the two picks he returned 42 yards for a touchdown - to seal the 42-23 win.

There were still some problem points for the Cougars: Tulane RB Albert Williams ran through the Cougar defense at will, gaining 83 yards on 14 carries, and the UH secondary was burned for touchdown passes of 13, 36 and 9 yards. One of the reasons why the Cougars stagnated on offense through most of the second half was because Tulane's defensive line was dominating Houston's offensive line. Houston's playcalling was rather "vanilla" - and therefore relatively easy to defend - as well, but that certainly had to do with the fact that an inexperienced young quarterback was running the offense.

All in all, though, this was a crucial win for the Cougars. They now head into a much-needed bye week with a 3-1 overall record and a 2-0 record in their division. Furthermore, now that UCLA has upset Texas in Austin, last week's catastrophic loss doesn't look quite so, well, catastrophic.

And let's face it: while a win over Mississippi State two weeks from now at home would be nice, it really isn't that important right now as an out-of-conference game. The Cougars' most important games - Rice, SMU and Tulsa - are coming up afterward.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Coogs suffer catastrophic 31-13 loss at UCLA

Here is a picture of myself, my brother David and my friend Joe before kickoff. We were happy at the time of this picture, which was taken by a member of Case Keenum's family. We weren't quite as happy after the game was over.
If the University of Houston Cougars wanted to prove to the world that they had indeed taken their program to the next level, then last Saturday night's game - nationally-televised, on the road, against a beatable opponent from a BCS Automatic-Qualifying conference - was one that they needed to win.

Instead, the Coogs did the exact opposite: they self-destructed. They showed to the college football world that they're not "there" yet. And, in the process, the Coogs lost both their starting and backup quarterbacks for the season.

Simply put, last Saturday's 31-13 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was a disaster of epic proportions.

Given that the Coogs under Kevin Sumlin have historically been able to get themselves motivated to play, and beat, teams from BCS-AQ conferences - see victories against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State last year - I'm not sure why the Cougars played as flat and as uninspired as they did against the Bruins that evening. Perhaps they saw the #23 next to their name and the 0-2 next to ULCA's name and thought the game would be a cakewalk. Maybe they found themselves in awe of California (a place several of the players had never before visited) and the storied Rose Bowl. Perhaps quarterback Case Keenum, who suffered a concussion the previous week against UTEP, was still not completely healthy going into this game, and perhaps the "will Kevin play" controversy that seemed to envelop the team over the past week was a source of distraction. Maybe Kevin Sumlin and his staff "coached scared" (in that regard, some of the playcalling was truly bizarre). For whatever reason, the Cougars looked so unprepared and out-of-sync that I truly felt like I was watching a Houston team of the Kim Helton or Dana Dimel eras.

Much credit has to be given to UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. His team clearly has a lot of talent and was better than their 0-2 record indicated. After being embarrassed at home 0-35 by Stanford last week, his team was out to prove itself. Also, much has to be said about the difference in size and strength between the two teams' lines. Until Kevin Sumlin and his staff can recruit the "big uglies" on both the offensive and defensive lines, the Cougars will always be at a physical disadvantage in the trenches when they face opponents from BCS-AQ conferences.

But the bad play was one thing. The loss of Case Keenum for the year was something else. Keenum injured himself the exact same way he suffered a concussion the week before - attempting to run down a defensive player after throwing an interception. Only this time, he turned his knee on the field and tore his ACL. His season, and most likely his college career, is over.

Although Case Keenum hadn't been "himself" since the end of last season - he had thrown 14 interceptions in his last five games - and although the "Keenum for Heisman" campaign was an unnecessary distraction (because Heisman voters will never give that trophy to a player from a non-AQ conference, regardless of how good he is), he was still the Cougars' most important player. Losing him is a crushing blow.

Especially considering that the backup quarterback, Cotton Turner, was also knocked out for the season after a UCLA player tackled him and broke his collarbone. That left true freshman Terrance Broadway to run the show, and in spite of the pressure put upon him (taking his first-ever college snaps, on the road, in the Rose Bowl, with his team trailing badly), he performed admirably, leading the Cougars to two scores including the team's only touchdown of the game.

Still, the game was a disaster. Houston's offense sputtered even before Keenum and Turner got knocked out. Keenum's interception came on 1st and goal, which made the play a game-changer in more ways than one. UCLA didn't have much of a passing attack, but they didn't need to throw the ball when they could torch Houston's poor run defense for 266 yards. The Cougar defense, to its credit, did manage to recover two fumbles and an interception, but that really only served to keep the score from becoming even more lopsided than it was.

Seriously: how many teams lose both their first and second-string quarterbacks in the same game?

Anyway, the parameters of this season have completely changed. Quarterbacking duties will now fall to either Broadway or David Piland, who is also a true freshman. Although I've heard strong reviews about both of them, you would ideally prefer to give these players a redshirt season to bulk up and gain experience. Now one or both of these young men will have to learn on the fly. Any lingering questions about Houston's defense have also been answered: they're no better than they were last year, especially against the run. And is the team's apparent lack of focus a regression to two years ago, when Cougars fell behind early in several games? Why didn't Kevin Sumlin have these players prepared for the game? And did he give up after Keenum went down?

Anyway, now that the "BCS Buster" and "Keenum for Heisman" distractions have been eliminated, maybe this team can regroup and focus on what matters: winning Conference USA. I think it's still possible. But it just got a lot harder. Needless to say, my preseason prediction of a nine-win season has now gone out the window.

Other than the game, my friend Joe, my brother David and I had a great time in LA. Friday we rode the subway to Hollywood, visited Little Tokyo, and had an amazing dinner at an Argentinean restaurant in Old Town Pasadena. Saturday morning we drove down to Santa Monica and spent some time there walking around and exploring. We found the tailgating scene out on the golf course to be delightful. And the Rose Bowl itself was pretty impressive:Indeed, the only thing that disappointed about the trip was the game itself.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Same story, different season

If the University of North Texas Mean Green were to show that they were indeed turning a corner in year four of the Todd Dodge era, then they simply had to win last Saturday's home game against a Rice Owls squad that went 2-10 the previous season.

They didn't.

In a painful flashback to the year before, wherein UNT lost five games by a margin of four points or less, the Eagles found themselves on the short end of a squeaker 31-32 loss to the Owls before 23,743 fans at Fouts Field. Like so many times last season, the Mean Green were leading late in the game. And, like so many times last season, they just couldn't find a way to seal the deal.

The Mean Green offense outgained the Owls both in the air and on the ground. They had four touchdowns to Rice's three. But they also suffered three turnovers to Rice's two and, most importantly, could not answer Rice's two-yard touchdown run with 6:22 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Close losses like these are always tough, but losing at home to a team that the Mean Green really needed to prove they could beat has to be especially excruciating for the North Texas players, coaches and fans. Last year's one-point home loss in overtime to Ohio last season sent the Mean Green on a six-game losing skid. If history repeats itself this year, then Todd Dodge is surely gone (his seat can't get much hotter than it already is) and another round of rebuilding under a new coach will have to ensue.

The Rice Owls, on the other hand, are clearly a team on the mend. This was an important win for them, especially coming off the previous weekend's better-than-expected showing against Texas.

Kirby visits the Rockies

About a month ago, Kirby and I flew up to Denver to spend a long weekend with my brother and to see a few sites. This is becoming an annual occurrence; August is a great time to get out of Houston, even if only for a few days, and Kirby gets to end the summer on a high note as well.

We spent a couple of days exploring areas west of Denver, including the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder. There Kirby decided to ride a snail: We also went to check out the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. Here, Kirby and his Uncle Dave step out of the way of a well-preserved vintage steam locomotive on its way around the museum's test track:Here's another shot of Kirby and his Uncle Dave, peering down from a rock along I-70 near Georgetown, Colorado. We were checking out the mountain scenery while we waited for our reservation on the Georgetown Loop Railroad:
Kirby also got to visit the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass. The high altitude was no problem for him:
All in all, a short yet enjoyable trip to the Rockies. The next step is to fly out there during the winter, so Kirby can learn how to snowboard!

Monday, September 13, 2010

What's up with all these FCS upsets?

It's commonplace for Football Bowl Subdivision (aka Division I-A) teams to open their seasons against second-tier Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) teams. Most of the time, these games are little more than scrimmages that result in big wins for the FBS programs.

But that's not always the case; sometimes the team from the lesser subdivision upends the team from the greater subdivision. Such was the case for the greatest upset in football history three seasons ago: Appalachian State's amazing 36-34 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor.

This season, FCS upsets of FBS teams have occurred with remarkable frequency. The first weekend of the season, we saw Jacksonville (Alabama, not Florida) State upset Ole Miss 49-38 in double overtime, while North Dakota State knocked off Kansas 6-3.

Then, this past Saturday, we had the big whopper: James Madison's 21-16 upending of 13th-ranked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Meanwhile, South Dakota knocked off Minnesota, 41-38. And for good measure, Gardner-Webb took down Akron, 38-37 in overtime, while Liberty beat Ball State, 27-23.

One or two upsets might be expected in a regular season. This year, we've had six. And four of the upset schools - Kansas, Minnesota, Virginia Tech and Ole Miss - are members of BCS-AQ conferences. Given the disparity in revenue, recruiting and scholarships awarded between these schools and their FCS opponents, you wouldn't expect these types of upsets to occur at all.

Yet they do.

That right there is why college football is such a wonderful sport, and why attempts to tinker with it by creating an elite "superconference" will only ruin it.

I'm not sure if the six upsets we've seen this season are just an anomaly or are part of a trend. Time will tell. I also need to think about adding JMU's victory over Virginia Tech to my list of upsets. If I did add it, where should it rank?

Houston 54, UTEP 24

There were plenty of things to like about Houston's runaway victory over Texas-El Paso late last Friday night.

First, the Coogs notched their first conference win of the season, avenging last year's disappointing 41-58 loss to the Miners in the process.

Second, the Cougars played before their second-consecutive announced sellout of 32,119 fans at Robertson Stadium. There weren't that many people actually in the stadium, of course; a lot of people ended up not using their tickets due to the late kickoff so there were empty seats scattered about. But all the tickets for the game were still sold, the student section was still packed, and the Cougars are way ahead of where they've historically been in terms of fan support.

Third, the Cougar offense unveiled a much-needed and very effective ground game. Bryce Beall carried the ball 19 times for 195 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Michael Hayes added another 77 yards and 3 touchdowns on 17 carries of his own, and the Cougars gained an impressive 308 yards on the ground. This isn't to say that the Cougars abandoned their lethal passing attack - they gained another 348 yards through the air - but the balanced offense the Cougars unveiled Friday night simply gives opposing coaches something else to worry about. Coming off a season where the Cougars didn't always run the ball effectively - see the 46 total rushing yards against Central Florida or the 30 total rushing yards against ECU, for example - this is truly a positive.

With the good came the bad, however. Most notably, quarterback Case Keenum was taken out of the game in the third quarter after suffering a head injury while defending a runback of his only interception of the night. There were a few tense moments in the stadium as Keenum lay on the turf following the collision with another player, but he walked back to the bench under his own power and remained there for the remainder of the game. Keenum was 18-for-24 for 279 passing yards and no touchdown passes (why throw when the RBs were doing such a good job scoring on their own?). Second-string quarterback Cotton Turner performed ably as Keenum's replacement; he was 9-for-10 for 69 passing yards and a touchdown and led the offense to three scores.

Another disappointment was the fact that the Cougar defense did not get to try their hand at stopping the guy who lit them up for 262 rushing yards last season; Miner RB Donald Buckram was held out of the game with an injury. Without him, UTEP gained only 100 rushing yards against the Coogs. This probably had as much to do with the fact that the Miners fell behind early and had to play a hurry-up passing offense for most of the game as it did the fact that Buckram was out. UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe, who also gave the Coogs fits last year, put up impressive numbers Friday night: he was 30-for-54 for 340 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions. He also gained another 25 yards rushing and was only sacked once. But his work simply wasn't enough; although UTEP scored the game's first touchdown, the Cougar defense would not let the Miners find the endzone again until midway through the third quarter.

All in all, a good win for the Cougars. Keenum is now listed as day-to-day and there is no word yet if he will start next Saturday against UCLA. Hopefully he will be able to start as the 0-2 Bruins have more talent than their record indicates and are going to be tough to beat at the Rose Bowl. However, if Beall and Hayes can replicate last Friday's performance against a UCLA defense that gave up 211 rushing yards to Stanford, then it might not matter who starts behind center. We'll see.

As a result of the win, the Coogs enter both the AP and Coaches' polls at #23.

The Houston Press also has a good take on the game.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Turning the corner

One of the most notable things about Houston's season-opening win over Texas State last Saturday had absolutely nothing to do with what happened on the field. It had to do with what happened in the stands. 32,119 people were in attendance Saturday night. That is the largest crowd Houston has ever had at Robertson Stadium since UH football returned to campus in the late 1990s.

We've come a long way.

This is what the west gradstand looked like for a game against Alabama-Birmingham in 2003. The attendance was rather generously announced at 15,120:
This is for a game against SMU a couple of years later. Attendance was announced at 14,650.
I could easily go through my photo collection and find example after example of UH football games featuring an almost-empty west-side grandstand. For so many years, that was just the way it was.

Fast-forward to Saturday night:
See that big block of red over there on the left side? Those are students. There was a time when you could not determine where the student section of Robertson Stadium was located. Students didn't attend the games. They didn't care.

That's changed.

Winning has a lot to do with it, of course. But I firmly believe the number of new on-campus housing developments that have been completed over the past several years has something to do with it as well. Generally speaking, students who live on-campus support their school's sports teams more than those that don't, because they're already on campus and already feel like they're part of the campus community. For many of them, that affinity for their alma mater and their sports teams will continue even after they graduate, meaning that they will continue to support the Coogs as alumni.

This is the key to building up a base of support for your sports programs. It's something the University of Houston has not historically done. But the times are changing.

Dustin believes that the University of Houston has turned the corner in terms of student support for its athletics programs. I'm not ready to go that far yet - it's probably a good idea to wait a few years to see if this trend is permanent - but, right now, something positive is clearly happening.

As a long-suffering Cougar fan, I'm very happy to finally see it.

Maybe I gloated too much

In the year since I wrote this post, I have not made any progress on my weight loss. I've been hovering at or above my current weight for the past year and right now I weigh about as much as I did exactly one year ago: less than I used to but more than I should.

Maybe I should try a little harder. And not gloat as much.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Belated 2010 Preview: University of Houston Cougars

Okay, so I admit that it's probably cheating if I put up a preview after the team's first game of the season. It's my fault for not finishing this entry before the Cougars took the field against I-AA Texas State last Saturday evening. On the other hand, the results of what was basically a scrimmage (Texas State is a respectable program, but they're still FCS) gives me a slightly better idea as to what things are going to look like for the Coogs this fall.

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.

For further reading, take a look at the Cougar previews up at CollegeFootballNews.com, Pre-Snap Read and Bleacher Report.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

University of North Texas 2010 Season Preview

Since Todd Dodge took over as head coach three seasons ago, the Mean Green have won exactly five games. That's going to have to change this season, lest the high school coaching legend be out of a job. In 2010, the choice is simple for North Texas: either win some games and go into 2011 (and a brand-new football stadium) with some momentum, or continue to lose and be forced start all over from scratch with a new coaching staff.

When North Texas opened last season with a solid 20-10 win at Bowling Green, it looked like 2009 might be a good year after all. However, the following week the team suffered a demoralizing 30-31 loss at home to the Ohio Bobcats and then went on the road to be drubbed by eventually national champion Alabama, 7-53. The Mean Green would then go on to lose 8 out of their last 9 games, their lone victory coming in a 68-49 shootout over Western Kentucky.

But even in such disappointment, there was a bright spot: the Mean Green lost six of those ten defeats by a margin of a touchdown or less. The same cannot be said for the dismal 2008 season, wherein of the 11 games North Texas lost only two were within a single-digit margin. If the team can turn what were close losses last season into close wins this season, they will be on their way to recovery.

Offense wasn't the problem for North Texas last year. The 408.67 yards per game was good enough for 36th in the nation in total offense, and the Mean Green ground attack ranked 28th in the nation at 185.25 ground yards per game. The North Texas passing attack wasn't bad, either; their 223.42 passing yads per game put them in the top half of the nation's 120 FBS teams at #51. And the Mean Green offensive line can be especially proud of their abilities to protect the passer: by allowing exactly one sack per game, they were tied for tenth-best in the nation. One area to work on in 2010 is scoring efficiency; UNT's 26.58 points per game were only good for 63rd in the nation in scoring offense.

The offense should be okay in 2010. Riley Dodge suffered an arm injury last season that ended his days as quarterback; he moves to wide receiver this season and Nathan Tune steps in to assume the role behind center. More importantly to the Mean Green is the return of Lance Dunbar, who was the 14th-best rusher in the nation last year, amassing a very impressive 6.89 yards per carry. Plenty of veterans return to the offensive line and the receiving corps as well. The biggest addition to the offense is a full-time offensive coordinator; Dodge has handed over playcalling duties to former South Florida assistant Mike Canales.

If the offense performed admirably in 2010, however, the defense was a different story (hmmm.. sounds like another Texas team I'm familiar with). The North Texas defense held their opponents to 412.33 yards per game (97th in that category) and 35.58 points per game (112th in that statistic). The squad was actually halfway decent in defending against the pass - they allowed 216.75 yards through the air, which is good enough for 54th in the nation - but fared rather poorly against the run: the 195.58 yards per game put them at 104th in the nation in rushing defense.

If North Texas is to improve in 2010, better defense against the run is a must. More backfield penetration is crucial as well; North Texas came in 116th in the nation in sacks recorded and 98th in the nation in tackles per loss. Is that possible, especially with the loss of key linebackers Tobe Nwigwe and Kylie Hill? The defense returns several starters, including senior LB Craig Robertson (who led the team in tackles last season) and sophomore DL Brandon Akpunku (who led the team in sacks), and a handful of JUCO transfers at the DL and LB positions are expected to provide immediate assistance as well. Given the narrow margins of defeat last season, it might not take much - a few runs stuffed here, another couple of sacks there - to turn some close Ls into close Ws this season.

The Mean Green's schedule is favorable. After they get the rent-a-win game at Clemson out of the way, they have winnable non-conference games against Rice and Army before easing into a conference slate that features three consecutive home games in October. Troy at home is going to be tough, however, and Middle Tennessee on the road is going to be really tough. And what's with the season-ending contest against Kansas State? All things said, contending for the Sun Belt conference title is probably not as big a priority for North Texas as is simply getting some wins under its belt. With this schedule they can do so.

Some in the national media expect some improvement from the Mean Green this fall. Sports Illustrated predicts a 4-8 campaign for UNT, while SouthernCollegeSports.com foresees a 6-6 record for the guys in green. NBC doesn't expect the Mean Green to do any better than 8th in the 9-team Sun Belt this fall, but CBS's three college football sportswriters wildly differ as to UNT's in-conference success. The computer rankings are less optimistic; CollegeFootballPoll.com (which has accurately predicted UNT's record each of the last three seasons) predicts a 3-9 record for the Mean Green, while Sagarin's preseason rating of 51.60 for North Texas implies an 0-fer season.

Obviously, a winless season would be a disaster for the Mean Green and would cost Todd Dodge his job, and given how unreliable Sagarin is at the beginning of the season I don't expect that to happen. But how many wins does Dodge actually need in order to return next season? While it's probably too much to expect North Texas to win the Sun Belt or go to a bowl this year, would a .500 season - a four-win improvement over 2009 - be enough? Would five wins even be acceptable, or is a losing record of any kind simply out of the question?

That's to be determined. What is for certain is this: after taking a step backward from 2007 to 2008, North Texas took a small step forward in 2009. They need to take a larger step forward in 2010.

Pre-Snap Read and CollegeFootballNews.com have 2010 Mean Green previews worth reading as well.

The elitist, cynical and flawed logic of the "superconference"

The conventional wisdom in the college football world is that the top tier of the sport, which currently "officially" consists of the NCAA's 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision, will one day grow smaller, to include only the most select "big-time" programs. The number being proposed for this new top tier is most often 64, but can vary from one proposal to the next.

College football is already moving in this direction. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has already divided FBS into two de-facto tiers: the 66 current schools of the six conference that automatically qualify for a postseason BCS bowl as well as Notre Dame, and the 54 teams from conferences that don't. While schools from the "non-AQ" tier have qualified for BCS bowl berths with increasing frequency, there is nevertheless a clear gulf between the BCS "haves" and the BCS "have-nots" in terms of revenue and national media coverage. This is done purposefully; it is a system of collusion and exclusion that benefits one group of schools at the expense of the other, and it is self-reinforcing such that the gap between those two groups continually grows wider and wider. The eventual result, should certain legal and political obstacles be overcome, will be the de-jure creation of a new, top tier of 64 or so schools, while the rest will sink into obscurity or drop football altogether.

I am, of course, opposed to this eventuality, and it's not just because I a fan of one of the "have-not" schools. Quite frankly, I think the concept will be hugely detrimental to the sport of college football in particular and collegiate athletics in general. Nevertheless, the arguments of those who favor such an outcome is always fascinating to read, if even only because of the unbridled elitism, cynicism, arrogance and lack of logical thought they reveal.

Such is the case with this particularly vapid column from AOL Fanhouse writer Brian McMurphy, who thinks that the big-time programs in college football shouldn't even wait for the BCS process to reach its ultimate conclusion; they should, instead, just leave the NCAA and form their own football association now:
With each new speculated conference expansion plan emerging from sea to shining sea, it's never been more obvious what should be the next move for college football's elite football programs.

Leave the NCAA.

Just ditch it. They don't need college sports' governing body anymore. They've outgrown the NCAA's archaic system and rules.


Not all programs mind you, but only the crème de la crème – the top 60 or 70 college football programs that really, truly matter. The ones that have been or would be willing to make a serious commitment, the ones that spend the big bucks on their pigskin programs: the so-called football factories.


The programs that realize having successful, multi-million dollar head coaches prowling the sideline in front of a sold-out stadium each Saturday is much more important than some silly APR ranking or team GPA. Student-athletes?
Shmudent-athletes!

These programs have already been compared to the minor leagues of the NFL. What's wrong with that? Embrace it. Let the schools not willing -- or without the resources -- to be a serious player in college football remain in the NCAA. The best programs can start up a new organization, for lack of a better name, called the NCFL: National Collegiate Football League.


With the NCFL, they won't have to worry anymore about a senator or attorney general threatening some frivolous lawsuit. The NCFL will create its own rules: no limits on the number of assistant coaches or practice time, give the players stipends or let the players sign early with agents, it doesn't matter. Remember, the No.1 reason they're at an NCFL school is football. If they want to go to class and get a degree, that's fine. Just don't miss practice.
Yeah, why make ensuring that these kids go to class and get an education a priority, anyway? What do universities think they are, actual institutions of learning?
The creation of the NCFL would also stop the current trend of conferences attempting to absorb other conferences like a scene from "The Blob." What is the main reason the Mountain West Conference appears to be trying to swallow the Western Athletic Conference in one bite? To keep BYU from going independent and therefore the MWC can keep alive its longshot chances to earn an automatic BCS bowl berth.

C'mon, who is the MWC kidding? The MWC doesn't deserve an automatic BCS bowl berth. Neither does the WAC, MAC, Conference USA or the Sun Belt. Let's stop pretending that the non-automatic qualifying BCS teams can or should compete with the automatic BCS teams.
Really? Why not? Last I checked, the MWC earned a BCS berth each of the last two years. The WAC earned a BCS berth three years out of the last four. As for McMurphy's sweeping generalization regarding non-automatic-qualifiers being unable to compete with automatic-qualifiers, well, I guess schools like BYU (beat Oklahoma last season), TCU (beat Clemson and Virginia, who also got beat by Southern Miss), Boise State (beat Oregon), Navy (beat Notre Dame, as well as Wake Forest and Mizzou), and yes, even Houston (beat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State) would beg to differ.

The players at the non-AQ schools play the same game as those from the AQ schools. If they can get the job done on the field, then they should have access to the BCS bowl system. McMurphy's suggestion that they can't or shouldn't is ridiculous.
Last year, Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, said that "from the very first kickoff of the college football season, the BCS uses its monopoly powers to put more than half of the schools at a disadvantage."

Schurtleff has it all wrong.


Those schools already are at a disadvantage because they don't (or can't) make the financial commitment or have the resources that the big boys do. In the college football arms race, those smaller conference schools, are France.
Actually, Schurtleff has it right and McMurphy is the one who's completely clueless. The non-AQ schools don't have the resources that the AQ schools do because the BCS system does not allocate those resources fairly. Give these non-AQs the same paychecks as the AQs get, along with some of the media attention that the AQs get, and a guarantee you that a lot of these "smaller conference schools" - obviously not all, but many - could make the financial commitment to football that McMurphy seems to think they should make.
Sure, a smaller conference school such as Boise State can pull off the occasional upset. But would Boise State, with a football budget that ranks about 85th out of the current 120 teams in the NCAA's upper division, deserve a spot or be able to compete in the NCFL? Doubtful.

However, in the current BCS format, all the Broncos need to do is win two tough games against Virginia Tech and Oregon State and then put it on cruise control through a patsy league schedule – which, Bronco fans, is why
I picked them to win the national title this year. But even the biggest Bronco fan would admit they wouldn't sniff an unbeaten season if they played an SEC or Big Ten caliber conference schedule.
Well, at least McMurphy gets props for picking Boise to win the national title. But he conveniently overlooks the fact that Boise is trying to up their commitment to their football program: for example, their plans to expand Bronco Stadium. And why should the team be punished because the rest of their conference mates are a bunch of "patsies?" They have no control over how well or how poorly the other teams in their conference do (and even then, teams like Fresno State and Nevada are probably playing well enough right now to avoid the "patsy" label). All Boise State can do is win their games. Or move to a better conference, which they tried to do by making the jump to the Mountain West, only to see MWC teams Utah and BYU bolt because they themselves wanted something better.

And why should football budget be a factor at all in the equation? If the small budget programs can beat the big budget ones, then shouldn't they get credit for being able to do more with less? Games are decided on the field, not in the ledger book. And once again, why are these programs "small budget" in the first place? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that they're excluded from getting the same BCS revenue streams that the big boys get, would it?
Not all of the big conference teams -- the current 67 teams from the six power leagues (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 with Utah, Big East and Notre Dame) -- would automatically get a free pass into the NCFL.

Unless they increase their commitment to football, some current automatic qualifying BCS programs -- and I'm talking about you Ole Miss, Baylor, Washington State, South Florida and Minnesota -- don't deserve to be in the NCFL. Why should they? They don't spend even one-third of what Ohio State does on its football program. You're either all in or you're n
ot.
At least McMurphy realizes that a few of the existing AQ teams might not belong where they are, although I'm not sure why he includes South Florida in his list - they averaged 52 thousand fans per game last season and have managed a .625 record since joining the Big East (including that win over traditional powerhouse Florida State last year). But again, we have McMurphy's strange obsession with football budgets. Who cares if some schools spend less than a third as much as one of the nation's strongest, most well-known and most historically successful programs? If they can compete, then it's irrelevant.

At least Murphy grudgingly accepts that at least a couple of the current non-AQs ought to get the chance for inclusion in his "NFL-Lite" association:
Probably the majority of the current non-automatic qualifying BCS conference teams, with the exception of TCU and maybe BYU, would need to remain in the NCAA -- not that there's anything wrong with it.
"Maybe" BYU? With their average home attendance of 64,236 last year and their 43-9 record over the last four seasons? I'm not going to defend the antics BYU has been playing regarding their desire to go independent and the instability they're causing out west as a result, but I don't think there's any "maybe" in the Cougars' worthiness in being included in the top tier of college football programs.
If schools remained in the NCAA, it just means those schools have different priorities than the NCFL schools. The NCAA teams will be able to compete on a more level playing field with their own kind -- the majority of the current C-USA, Mountain West, WAC, MAC and Sun Belt teams. Maybe even some FCS teams could move up to the NCAA's FBS division.
But that's not would happen. The more likely result of the split McMurphy advocates is that the majority of these "left-behind" programs would simply wither away and die.

Under the current FBS structure there exists the illusion of parity: that any of its 120 schools could, under the right circumstances, play for the national title. It is an illusion because it simply can't happen under the current BCS system, but it's nevertheless very powerful. It's the idea that these schools are in fact part of the "big-time," and it compels fans of schools like East Carolina, Toledo, UTEP Colorado State or Hawaii to support their teams. Take away that illusion, and whatever support these programs have evaporates. What's the point, after all, in supporting a program that no longer has a chance, even if a very theoretical one, to compete with the best?

Fan support for theses schools would then be limited to a handful of die-hard alums and students. The casual fan would ignore them. The media would completely ignore these schools as well, just the way they currently ignore the FCS in its entirety. The result is that these programs would either drop down to FCS or disappear entirely. And college football would be a lesser sport because of it.

Proposals to trim the world of big-time college football to an elite grouping of schools always seem to overlook the fact that the fortunes of football teams change over time. Programs ebb and flow, become dominant and then dormant. Fan support and TV ratings rise and fall with these cycles. There was once a time when Florida State and Miami were not considered football powerhouses, while schools like Rice and Army were. Just a few years ago it would have been absurd to think of Boise State and TCU as top-ten programs. And storied programs fall on hard times, as the recent history of Michigan and Notre Dame have shown.

The beauty of the college football landscape is that it changes over time, and the sheer number of programs participating make it dynamic and unpredictable. Reducing the number of teams to a handful of programs that currently meet a set of arbitrary thresholds turns college football into little more than a static and predictable business venture. If you want sterile, all-about-the-money football, you already have an option: its called the NFL.

The eventual result of the "superconference," by the way, will inevitably be even more stratification, as programs like Missouri, Maryland or Indiana find themselves falling behind schools like Texas, Florida State or Ohio State in terms of revenue or fan support. What then? Do we reduce the top tier of college football even further, until only about ten or twelve truly "top" schools - the ones with half-billion-dollar revenue streams and stadiums seating upwards of 150,000 fans - ultimately remain?

And what of the effect that a non-NCAA "superconference" for football, such as McMurphy's NCFL, would have on other sports? I doubt the NCAA would allow schools to leave for football but to continue to compete for other sports - they're either all in or all out. That means no Big Dance, no College World Series. Sure, the NCFL could create their own tournaments for these and other non-revenue sports. But it wouldn't be the same, especially since so many great current and historic basketball schools like Villanova, Georgetown, Xavier, Seton Hall, Butler or Gonzaga don't play football. And a college baseball tournament without Cal State - Fullerton or Rice? Snore.

Finally, there are the political obstacles that stand in the way of the "superconference's" formation, especially in regard to state institutions. For example, guess what happens in the Texas state legislature if, as McMurphy suggests, Baylor is left out of his proposed NCFL?

McMurphy's article is long on arrogance and elitism but is rather short on logic. I can't help but wonder, in fact, if his entire article was tongue-in-cheek (and if so, I obviously just swallowed it hook, line and sinker). But there's no doubt that the "NCFL" that McMurphy describes is clearly in the minds of many among the college football elite, whether it be network executives or conference commissioners or big-money alumni at big-time schools. Thanks to the BCS, this greedy, cynical and flawed vision of college football's future is already coming into fruition.

For the sanctity of the game, it must be stopped. The best way to do that is by scrapping the BCS and implementing a playoff that treats all FBS schools, as well as their fans and their players, equally.