Tuesday, August 29, 2006

2006 football outlook: the University of Houston

A month and a half ago, I reported that I was trying not to get excited about the upcoming Cougar football season. Well, those days are over. Football season is my favorite time of year and it's only a few days (and a very long, two-legged plane ride; damn you, Emirates, for not flying non-stop to Houston yet!) away, and I am officially excited. I am counting the hours until the 8 pm kickoff at Rice Stadium this Saturday.

The Owls, under the direction of new coach Todd Graham, are abandoning the wishbone of the Ken Hatfield era for a more open style of offense. But it will take some time for the Owls to make the offensive adjustment, and their defense has a lot of improvement to make as well. Nobody is expecting much from the Owls during this year of transition; they even start the season in espn.com's inital Bottom Ten poll. Given those facts, a Cougar victory over Rice seems likely; they're 12-point favorites going into Saturday's Bayou Bucket.

Of course, a victory over Rice is never a given. The new-look Owls are going to come onto their field with a great deal of enthusiasm, and Rice's long-suffering fan base, eager for a fresh start, will be energized as well. The painful shock of the season-opening loss to Rice in 2004 is still fresh in the minds of Coog fans everywhere, and a similar start to the 2006 season would be a catastrophe.

But the Rice game aside, how good will the Cougars really be this fall? There is a sense among the Cougar faithful that this is "the year" for the Coogs. In fact, none other than legendary former coach Bill Yeoman told me that 2006 was the season to look forward to when I ran into him at Love Field in Dallas a year and a half ago. He, like many UH fans, believes that there is enough talent and experience on this fall's team to make the 2006 season a really good one, one that long-suffering Cougar fans have been waiting for for far too long.

The team is loaded at the skill positions: four-year starter Kevin Kolb is at quarterback; senior Vincent Marshall, reliable Donnie Avery and Arizona transfer Brian Ealy are in at wide receiver; Jackie Battle's a pretty good running back, and senior Roshawn Pope has been moved from the defensive side of the ball in order to add some speed to the backfield. The Cougar offensive line struggled in 2004 but made great strides last season; they should be a real strength this year. The defense saw improvement after switching to the 3-4 scheme last year and will hopefully be even better under a new defensive coordinator this year. The linebacking corps is the strength of the defense and is loaded with talent from the likes of Wade Koehl, Brandon Pahulu, Trent Allen and Cody Lubojasky. Will Gulley is back in the secondary after missing last year with an injury and joins key players such as Willie Gaston and Rocky Schwartz in the backfield. Then there's the schedule: the Coogs play eight games in the city of Houston and get tough C-USA rivals such as Tulsa, UTEP and Central Florida at home.

But with the strengths also comes areas of concern. For example, depth. If Kevin Kolb goes down, the Coogs are in serious trouble. The offensive line is thin as well. Then there's offensive efficiency: while the Coogs moved the ball well between the goal lines - they were 19th nationally in terms of yards gained - they weren't as successful in putting the ball into the endzone, coming in 51st in the nation in scoring offense. The offense needs to do a better job of finishing drives this year. There are question marks on the defensive side of the ball as well. Will the Coogs be able to mount an effective pass rush this year? They must improve upon their meager 17 sacks of a year ago. Tackling must improve, too.

And what about penalties? The Coogs got flagged 93 times for 830 yards in 2005, making Houston one of the most penalty-prone teams in the nation last season. Better team discipline is a must. The Coogs need to reduce the number of turnovers as well; the Coogs lost the ball 28 times on the year, making it one of the most turnover-prone teams in all of Division I-A. Special teams are also an area of worry; Houston’s abysmal net punting average – 27.6 yards – was the second-worst in the nation and they only made 13 out of 22 field goal attepts last season.

And, while the Coogs are expected to be an improved team this fall, other teams in the conference are expected to be pretty good as well. UTEP, with experienced coach Mike Price and senior QB Jordan Palmer, is going to be a huge obstacle in the Coogs' path to the western division title this fall. Last year's conference champion, Tulsa, returns sixteen starters and is looking to exact revenge for their close loss to Houston last year, just as the Cougars want revenge for their close losses to Central Florida and UTEP. Speaking of which, Central Florida returns 19 starters from their breakout, eight-win season of a year ago. Southern Miss is always a tough opponent, and, while the Coogs may have dodged a late USM rally to win last year, they have to go play the Golden Eagles in Hattiesburg, where they've never won, this year. Memphis might not have running back D'Angelo Williams anymore, but that hardly matters; they still have Joe Lee Dunn running the defense, and he's proven to be UH head coach (and offensive coordinator) Art Briles' nemesis. There's no doubt that Southern Methodist, under the direction of coach Phil Bennett, is improving. SMU, who upset the Coogs at Robertson last year, gets the Coogs in Dallas. And Tulane is looking to put their hurricane-ravaged season of a year ago behind them and make some serious strides this fall.

And that's just the conference. The out-of-conference schedule includes an improving Louisiana-Lafayette team led by senior QB Jerry Babb that is expected to win their conference this season. Grambling is a pretty strong program by I-AA standards. Oklahoma State is a BCS program that looks to rebound after last year's disappointing season. And Miami... Well, let's just hope that the Coogs make it out of the Orange Bowl without any serious injuries.

Indeed, this season is not going to be a cakewalk for the Cougars, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions on both sides of the ball. But with experience and maturation comes improvement, which makes it probable that the team won't repeat some of the costly mistakes they made a year ago. I'm also hopeful that the team's overall stamina will be improved by a new strength and conditioning coach, so that the Coogs will maintain their physical edge through four quarters. Last season, Houston surrendered third-quarter leads in their losses to Oregon, UTEP and SMU and allowed Tulsa and Southern Miss back into games that should have been over.

This is not a team that is going to compete for a national championship. Just winning their division is going to be a challenge. But the 2006 Houston Cougars are a team that has the potential to put together the most successful season on Cullen Boulevard since the Run and Shoot era.

Over on various UH athletics message boards, of course, the mood is optimistic and expectations are high. There seems to be a consensus that an eight-win season is the bar for 2006, and that anything less than that would constitute a disappointing season. Enthusiasm among UH fans is evident on the Houston Chronicle's UH athletics blog, where blogger Ronnie Turner asked his readers what they thought. Most of the responses were optimistic; a couple of people even predicted an upset win over Miami. "I'll be disappointed if their record is worse than 8-4 in the regular season," one respondent wrote. "10 wins is a given," somebody else said. Not every UH fan is quite as optimistic, it should be noted. One local blogger foresees a break-even, six-win season for Houston this fall.

But fan predictions are one thing; what do national college football resources, which have a tendency to be more objective, say about the Houston Cougars? Collegefootballpoll.com, which uses the Congrove Computer System to predict its games, has come up with a preseason prediction of 7-5 for the Coogs. Collegefootballnews.com predicts a 7-5 record for the Coogs as well. Sports Illustrated, likewise, envisions a 7-win season for the Coogs. And Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings at usatoday.com, which put Houston 89th to start the season, imply an 8-4 record for the Coogs when the ratings of opponents and the home-field advantage are taken into account.

There are also publications that pick where the coogs will end up in the conference but don't pick a record. As far as the preseason magazines go, Houston is picked to win or tie for the Western Division by Phil Steele, Gold Sheet and ATS Consultants. The rest have the Coogs pegged at third. Sportsline.com has the Coogs pegged at third in the west as well; so does usatoday.com. The C-USA coaches, in their yearly poll, also think that Houston will end up third in the West, behind Tulsa and UTEP.

Of course, preseason predictions are just that - predictions. They play the games for a reason. But that won't stop me from making my own predictions for the 2006 Cougar football season. I think the Coogs' schedule, as well as their talent and experience, will result in eight regular season wins this year.

I believe they will defeat Rice, Tulane, Grambling, ULL and take two of UTEP, UCF and Tulsa at home. They'll exact revenge against SMU in Dallas, and win one of their road games against USM and Memphis. A win over Oklahoma State is also a possibility, but after the Fort Worth Bowl debacle against Kansas I'm not confident enough to predict a Cougar victory over even a struggling Big XII school. And Miami, well, I'd be happy to see the Coogs cover the spread.

If the Coogs can get past both UTEP and Tulsa, then they'll probably end up atop C-USA's western division and play in the conference's championship game in September. But even if eight wins only puts them in second or third place, that will still represent the best UH season since 1990 and almost certainly send them to a postseason bowl for the third time in four years. That's good enough for me. If the Coogs can win their first bowl game since the Carter administration, that'd be even better.

Of course, anything over eight wins would be fantastic. A seven-win would be less thrilling but still acceptable to me. A .500 season would be a bit of a disappointment. And a losing season? Well, I don't want to go there, but it would probably mean the end of the Art Briles era.

Let's hope that doesn't come to pass. The Coogs (and their fans) could really use a breakout season.

This prediction, as well as many other fun discussions regarding UH fans, can also be found in my latest edition of As The World (Wide Web) Turns - Cougar Edition, now posted at coogfun.com.

EDIT: Chronicle columnist John Lopez thinks that the Coogs are in for a good season, too. He is among those pointing to 2006 as a pivotal year:
That's why the Cougars have reached a now-or-never kind of point in their football program's existence. If, after seasons of football lethargy at UH, this deep, talented, fast and hungry team cannot take the next step and capture some attention, then when will it happen? Ever?

Exactly. If not this year for the Coogs, then when?

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