Looking Back: The 2015 season was Houston's most successful in three-and-a-half decades, as the Cougars defeated the Florida State Seminoles in the Peach Bowl and ended the season ranked #8 in both the AP and coaches' polls. Head coach Tom Herman and his staff followed that accomplishment by signing UH's highest-rated recruiting class ever, thereby keeping the momentum going into 2016.
The Big Story for 2016: It's been a long time since the Cougars entered the season with such lofty expectations. Season ticket sales are up, the national media has taken notice, and some outlets are going so far as to suggest that Houston could actually win it all this year. While that's unlikely, the Cougars are, at the very least, The team is, at the very least, expected to win the AAC Championship and go to a New Years Six Bowl for the second year in a row. Can this team handle the pressure that comes with such elevated expectations?
A side story heading into the season regards the possibility that the Cougars could soon be invited to join the Big XII conference, thereby finally being bestowed "big boy" status as a Power Five conference school. Houston has been teased with Big XII membership before. however, so I'm not believing anything until it happens.
Reasons for Optimism: The electric Greg Ward, Jr is back at quarterback. Highly-recruited Texas transfer running back Duke Catalon is in the backfield. Five-star recruit Ed Oliver joins the defensive line. The Cougars enter the season loaded with talent in the receiving crops, the linebackers and the defensive line. But most importantly, the one person most responsible for last years success - head coach Tom Herman - returns for his second season, along with his staff.
Reasons for Pessimism: With the caveat that I am, by nature, a pessimistic person, here are three big concerns of mine going into the season:
- The Cougars have lost a lot of talent from last year's team. Only six offensive starters and five defensive starters return from last year's 13-1 team. Among those lost are safeties Trevon Stewart and (NFL first round draft pick) William Jackson, CB William Jackson, LB Elandon Roberts, WR DeMarcus Ayers and RB Kenneth Farrow.
- A lot of last year's success was luck. As SB Nation's Bill Connelly explains, the Cougars were the beneficiaries of a lot of lucky breaks last season. The victory over Memphis, for example, came down to a missed field goal as time expired. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the Coogs created chances and took advantage of the breaks they received last year. But those lucky breaks tend to revert to the mean over time, and the team cannot count on such good on-field fortune repeating itself in 2016.
- The Sports Illustrated Jinx. Greg Ward, Jr made it on to the cover of a regional edition of Sports Illustrated's college football preview:
ranked #12 going into the season, and QB David Klingler was a top Heisman candidate. We all
know how that season turned out.
This is not to say that the SI cover jinx is a real thing, and there's no question that Tom Herman
is a better coach than John Jenkins, who is largely responsible for the disaster that was the 1991
UH season. But 1991 is nevertheless a cautionary tale: the Cougars were highly ranked, were
garnering lots of national publicity, and were expected to have a great season. They flopped.
Let's hope that history does not repeat.
The Schedule: Although the Coogs only leave the State of Texas three times this fall, the overall schedule is going to be tough. #3 Oklahoma at NRG Stadium, #17 Louisville at home and Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis on the road are obviously the toughest obstacles. Just because the latter two AAC West opponents are missing their biggest playmakers from last year (QBs Keenan Reynolds and Paxton Lynch, respectively) doesn't mean they aren't capable of exacting revenge on the Cougars and denying them a second straight division title. SMU, Tulsa and Central Florida re likely to be improved programs this fall as well.
What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts the Cougars off in the #34 position with a rating of 79.20. That implies a 11-1 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration, although the Louisville game is essentially a toss-up. The Congrove system used by collegefootballpoll.com also predicts an 11-1 campaign. Other algorithms are not as friendly to the Cougars; Massey gives the Cougars a 75% or better chance of winning in seven of their twelve regular season games, while ESPN's initial Football Power Index ranks Houston #46 to start the season and gives them a 75% or better chance of winning in only six of their games.
What I Think: This is really a hard season for me to predict. One one hand, the Cougars are talented, well-coached and coming off one of the program's best seasons of all time. On the other hand, they face a tough schedule featuring strong Power Five opponents (Oklahoma, Louisville) and revenge-minded conference rivals (Cincinnati, Navy, Memphis), they've lost a lot of key players from last year's team, and they are saddled with tremendous pressure. The pressure doesn't just come from the sports media and their elevated expectations for Houston; it also comes from the need for the Cougars to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, that the program has, at long last, become a national power that deserves a spot in a Power Five conference like the Big XII.
My heart wants to believe the Coogs can meet expectations by going to a second-straight New Years Six Bowl and maybe, just maybe, make the four-team playoff. But my head says that the team simply has too many obstacles to allow that to happen. I predict a 9-3 season, with losses against Oklahoma, at Cincinnati, and against one of Louisville, Memphis or Navy.
I realize that a 9-3 season probably won't be good enough for a second-straight conference championship and definitely won't be good enough for a second-straight New Years Six Bowl; in fact, it will be widely regarded as a disappointment. But that's what I believe is most likely to happen, so that's my prediction.
Must-read articles about the Cougars, the struggle to join the Big XII, coach Herman and the season ahead from Dennis Dodd of CBS, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated and Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report. Houstonia's take is excellent as well. SB Nation, fansided.com, USA Today, si.com, and collegefootballnews.com all have more.