It seems trite, and even insensitive, to write about college football as the as the death, property damage and human suffering tolls of Harvey mount. This is especially true for the Houston Cougars, whose players might have family members affected by the catastrophe and whose own facilities have been damaged by the floodwaters. The program's season opener against Texas-San Antonio, which was scheduled for this weekend, has been postponed.
With that said, we're all going to need some semblance of normalcy to return as the floodwaters recede and as college football season begins.* So what can be expected from the UH football program this fall?
Looking Back: the 2016 season started off with high hopes for the Cougars, who began the season with a signature upset of Oklahoma, and at one point were ranked as high as #6 in the AP poll before crashing down against Navy and SMU. Ravaged by injuries and constant rumors about the future of head coach Tom Herman (who fled to Austin at season's end), the Cougars ended the 2016 season unranked, with an 9-4 record and a bowl loss. USA Today gives the Cougars a C+ on the season; I know several UH fans who probably would have given the team an even lower grade, given the expectations they had going in to the season.
I accurately predicted that the Coogs would end the regular season with a 9-3 record (although I predicted one of the losses to be against Oklahoma, not Friggin' SMU!). The fact that the Cougars could beat Oklahoma and Louisville but still not end the season ranked was a disappointment for me.
The Big Story for 2017: for the second time in three seasons and the third time in six, the program has a new coaching staff. Former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite takes over the reigns as head coach. I've been familiar with Applewhite for about 20 years, as he was quarterback at Texas when I was a graduate student there. Applewhite's new offensive coordinator is Brian Johnson, whose previous coaching experience was at Utah and Mississippi State. Mark D'Onofrio, who was previously at Miami, is defensive coordinator.
Reasons for Optimism: the Cougars have some talent returning. Notably, defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a preseason All-American who may be one of the best defensive players in the country. Linebacker Matthew Adams, who led the team in tackles last year, returns as well. Seniors Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis anchor the secondary. On the offensive side of the ball, highly-recruited Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen is expected to take the reigns as starting quarterback. He'll be joined in the backfield by Duke Catalon, who was the team's leading rusher last year, and will have experienced targets in the form of senior wide receivers Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar.
Another reason for optimism is that the Cougars aren't going into 2017 with the same set of pressures and distractions that they were facing a year ago. They're not in the conversation as a potential "playoff buster" this season, the Big XII expansion farce is not an issue this season, and they don't have to spend every week this season hearing chatter that their head coach is the top candidate for other jobs. The team might play better without these distractions hanging over their heads.
Reasons for Pessimism: aside from the uncertainty that a new coaching staff brings, the Cougars are also having to fill the holes left by the departures of many talented players, including quarterback Greg Ward Jr, wide receiver Chance Allen, linebacker (and second-round draft pick) Tyus Bowser, linebacker Steven Taylor, and defensive backs Howard and Brandon Wilson. It doesn't give me a lot of comfort that new DC Mark D'Onofrio was unemployed the entire 2016 season, or that Miami fans inundated Cougar message boards after UH hired him to tell us how horrible he was there and how big of a mistake we made by hiring him. The biggest problem on the offensive side of the ball is the offensive line, which gave up 98 TFLs last season. They're still suspect until proven otherwise.
The Schedule: the Cougars face two beatable P5 schools - Arizona and Texas Tech - and get the three teams that beat them last year - Navy, Memphis and SMU - at home this fall. It remains to be seen if the UTSA game will be rescheduled; that could have a significant effect on the team if, for example, it replaces the November 11 open date.
What the Pigskin Pundits Think: they're all over the place. Some people are a bit bearish on the Coogs; Athlon predicts a seven-win season for the Coogs, as does USA Today. Others are more optimistic: SBNation predicts a nine-win season for UH, CBS Sports thinks the Coogs will win at least nine games, and Saturday Blitz sees a ten-win campaign. Yardbarker doesn't predict a record but does think that the Cougars will have a better record without Tom Herman.
What the Computers Think: for whatever reason, the machines are all pretty optimistic. Sagarin seeds the Cougars in the #46 spot with a rating of 75.77. That implies a record of 10-2 when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into account. The Congrove algorithm, likewise, predicts a 10-2 record. Massey foresees a 9-3 campaign for the Coogs. ESPN's FPI, which has been updated to exclude the UTSA game, predicts a 9-2 record for the Cougars.
What I Think: a ten-win season would be a great start to the Major Applewhite era and a wonderful rebound from the relative disappointment of a year ago. Alas, I just don't see it happening. I think the Cougars have lost too much talent from a season ago, there's too much uncertainty surrounding the new coaching staff, no help has been provided to the struggling O-line (i.e. in the form of JUCO transfers), and Harvey and its aftermath will have a negative effect on the team's focus.
I predict a 7-5 record for the Cougars (6-5 if the UTSA game is not rescheduled).
*It already has, for two local universities. Although I'm sure it was a great experience for the players, did Rice really have to travel all he way to Australia just to get trounced by Stanford?!
(UPDATE: The UTSA will not be rescheduled.)