Through three weeks, there has be no more disappointing team in college football. No team has suffered a more inexplicable loss, with all due to respect to Pittsburgh, Arkansas and Wyoming, among others. Of the 27 teams that notched double-digit wins last fall, how many seem assured of not reaching that mark in 2012? I’ll say three: Arkansas State, Arkansas… and Houston.Coming off of last Saturday's 6-37 loss to UCLA - a game I fortunately didn't have to watch - the Cougars enter a much-needed weekend of rest. But it's going to take a lot more than some rest for this disorganized and ineffective team to get themselves to the point where they can win some games.
So what has gone wrong? What the heck is going on here? How have the Cougars gone from 13 wins, a program record, to the bottom of the F.B.S. barrel? What can the Cougars do to dig themselves out of this hole? Is the year unsalvageable? One question at a time, please.
Here’s what’s gone wrong: everything. The offense has been the ultimate paper tiger; while U.H. ranks 39th nationally in total offense, this group has been anything but competent through three weeks. The Cougars gained 326 yards in the 30-13 loss to Texas State. They gained another 388 yards in Saturday’s loss to Bruins.
Don’t even get me started on this defense, which can’t get stops on third down, can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass, can’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback and can’t keep teams out of the end zone. This defense is horrific – though not as bad as this offense.
I'm looking back at my hastily-written season preview of a few weeks ago and realizing that I drank the kool-aid. While I did acknowledge that the team would be taking a step back from their thirteen wins of a year ago, I nevertheless predicted an eight-win season this fall. Barring some sort of miracle, that's not going to happen. In retrospect, I simply didn't appreciate just how much of a rebuilding year 2012 was going to be. The Cougars had sustained not just the loss of record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, or head coach Kevin Sumlin and much of his staff, but as well a host of other playmakers on both sides of the ball: wide receivers Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson, running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall, linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw, and defensive lineman David Hunter, just to name a few. The result is a team that lacks experience and leadership.
Then there's new head coach Tony Levine. This is his first head coaching gig, and perhaps he needs time to grow into that role. Perhaps he and his staff need time to develop and implement their philosophy for the program. But perhaps the problem with Levine is more profound:
On the other hand, you have to at least posit a different scenario: Levine is in over his head. He wouldn’t be the first unqualified, feel-good hire to come up short in the top spot – heck, Jon Embree, another favorite son handed the keys, has been an utter disaster over at Colorado.The decision of Levine and his defensive coordinator, Jamie Bryant, to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme in spite of the fact that they clearly do not have the players to run that scheme, is also a point of concern. Does this coaching staff simply not know what they are doing?
Didn’t Levine hit the ground running during bowl play, when he led U.H. to a one-sided win over Penn State? Yes, but he did so with Case Keenum, a wonderful receiver corps and then-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips, though Kliff Kingsbury had left to join Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Is it possible – or even probable – that Keenum and company had more to do with the Cougars’ bowl win than Levine?
Levine’s mishandling of his key hire, offensive coordinator, set a new bar for first-time-coach buffoonery. Say what you will about Mike Nesbitt, that he was not ready for the step up in competition, that he was inflexible, that his offense did mesh with Houston’s returning talent. It all comes down to this: Levine made the hire. If Nesbitt wasn’t ready, shouldn’t Levine have known this during the interview process?
The next three games, all in Houston and all against opponents that, well, aren't exactly going to be mistaken for college football's elite, are going to be critical for Levine, his staff and his players. Next weekend the Coogs face crosstown rival Rice at Reliant Stadium. The Owls already have a road win over a Big XII team under their belt, and they always give the Cougars all they can handle. Nevertheless, Houston has a considerable talent advantage and this game is very winnable if the Coogs can get their act together. The Cougars should be favored to win the following two games at Robertson against North Texas and Alabama-Birmingham at Robertson Stadium.
If the Cougars can go 3-0 during this stretch, then that would indicate that they have righted the ship and are on track to have a successful season in spite of their disastrous start. A 2-1 record would not be quite as ideal but would nevertheless suggest a salvagable season. A 1-2 record, however, would probably portend a losing season; 0-3, a winless season and the need to begin looking for a new head coach.