Usually, this is the time of year when I write previews for upcoming college football season. However, events of the past couple of weeks (including my awesome end-of-summer trip to Hawaii, pictures of which are coming soon) have prevented me from writing anything this time around.
Which is actually okay, because I really have no idea what to expect from the this fall's installment of college football; not at the national level (Oklahoma is the preseason #1 and Alabama is the preseason #2, but if past history is any indication neither one of these teams will be playing for the BCS title come January) and certainly not at the local level. Even though Case Keenum is back for a sixth season and the Cougars have a relatively easy schedule, I really don't know just how well, or how poorly, the University of Houston football program is going to do this fall.
While I'm obviously grateful that he has been granted a sixth season, which Case Keenum will be returning behind center for the Coogs this fall? The one whose name began appearing in Heisman conversations during the 2009 season or the one who threw 14 interceptions in the last five games before he was injured? And while Keenum has plenty of weapons at his disposal in terms of wide receivers and running backs (including Conference USA Freshman of the Year Charles Sims, who sat out all of 2010 for academic reasons), he's also going to be behind an offensive line that lost three starters from last season and has been completely reconfigured.
Then there's the defense, which was utterly atrocious last season. Last year, the Coogs were 103rd (out of 120 FBS teams) in total defense and 114th in run defense, giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Granted, you can win with a mediocre defense if you have a good enough offense. But therein lies the rub: the UH defense is going to need to make massive strides if they want to improve to merely mediocre this season.
To the credit of head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff, they have spent the offseason trying to plug some holes on the defensive side of the ball. They brought in immediate help for the struggling secondary when they recruited junior college transfers D. J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett, defensive backs who both played on Navarro College's 2010 NJCAA national championship team. Both of them expect to start. The defense also gets a boost with the return of defensive lineman Zeke Riser, who had an impressive true freshman season in 2009 but missed all of last season with an injury. Nor does it hurt that linebackers Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown, both of whom had strong seasons last year, return.
But as for overall improvement on the defensive side of the ball - they can't get much worse, after all - I'll believe that they're improved when I see it.
Finally, I'm not convinced that this schedule is as easy as it looks. The revenge-minded Cougars start the season with UCLA at home, which win or lose is going to be an emotional match for them (given the size difference between the two teams that was apparent at the Rose Bowl last year even before Keenum went down, I'm fully expecting a loss), and the following week's game in Denton against a North Texas team that will be fired up to play their first game at their new stadium has "trap" written all over it.* From there, the Cougars travel to Ruston to play Louisiana Tech, and back-to-back games on the road are never easy.
After what should be an easy home game against Georgia State, the Cougars go back on the road to play UTEP in El Paso, and we all know what happened the last time the Cougars played there. The following week's home game against an East Carolina team that beat the Cougars for the Conference USA title in 2009 is not going to be a walk in the park, either. After another home game against Marshall, the Cougars then host a Rice team that always gives the Cougars their best shot and in fact have beaten them twice in the last three seasons. Then it's back on the road to play Alabama-Birmingham, whom Houston has only beaten once at Legion Field.
The season ends with another back-to-back road trip against Tulane, a home match against an improving SMU team, and a season-ending trip to play a Tulsa squad that beat the Cougars at Robertson last year. These last two games will likely decide whether the Cougars win C-USA's western division and make it to the conference championship game.
If Case Keenum can regain his 2009 form, the new offensive line performs well, and the defense makes enough improvement to at least be competitive, then this fall could be a good one for the Cougars. They could win ten or eleven games, secure the division title and have a shot at winning the conference. But if the defense continues to be abysmal, the new offensive line can't protect Keenum or open holes for the running game, or Case has a bad season (or, God forbid, gets injured again), then the 2011 campaign could very well be a disappointing one for the Cougars and their fans. I'm obviously hoping for the former, but after last season's disappointment I refuse to make any great expectations for this team.
For what it's worth, collegefootballpoll.com, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins or losses ten out of the last seventeen seasons, foresees a 10-2 regular-season, while Sports Illustrated expects the Coogs to notch a 9-3 record this fall. If the Cougars win 9 or 10 games but do not win their division, however, I think the players, coaches and fans will generally consider the season to be a disappointment. With conference realignment threatening to cause some major changes in the college football landscape, the Cougars need to have a breakout season this fall in order to make some noise on the national stage and to have any hope in being in a better place with the dust settles.
The important thing, however, is that the wait is over. College football is finally here, and I couldn't be happier. Here's to hoping for an exciting season at the national level and a very successful season for the Cougars.
* I don't know what to expect from North Texas under new coach Dan McCarney, either. Obviously last night's 16-41 loss to Florida International was not the way the Mean Green wanted to start the season, but it's going to take time for the new coaching staff to get their philosophy and their personnel in place. 2011 is going to be a rebuilding year for North Texas, and hopefully some improvement will become evident as the season progresses.