My favorite time of year is finally upon us! The first college football games of the season are underway as I write this, and the University of Houston kicks off in less than 48 hours from now at TDECU Stadium, where they will be hosting Tennessee Tech. What do I expect from my beloved Coogs this year?
Looking Back: The Cougars notched an 8-5 record in 2014, capped by a miraculous 25-point fourth-quarter comeback against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, the season was an overall disappointment, capped by unforgivable upset losses to UTSA on TDECU Stadium's opening night and to Tulane on Homecoming. Those losses cost Tony Levine his job after only three seasons as head coach.
The Big Story for 2015: Levine's replacement, Tom Herman, has an extensive coaching pedigree, most recently
serving as offensive coordinator for last year's national champion, Ohio
Reasons for Optimism: Given Tom Herman's previous coaching experience, as well as the fact that he's assembled by what all accounts is a strong staff, one would expect a significant upgrade over the previous regime in terms of coaching and play-calling abilities. Talented players, such as bruising RB Kenneth Farrow and mobile QB Greg Ward Jr, return on offense. The defense is experienced; every player on the two-deep released earlier this week is a returning letterman, and the secondary, anchored by seniors Lee Hightower, William Jackson, Adrian McDonald, and Trevon Stewart, might actually one of the best in the nation.
Reasons for Pessimism: in spite of all the positive buzz surrounding Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a game yet. There's always a learning curve associated with becoming a head coach for the first time, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way as he settles into his new job. My biggest on-field concern is the offensive line. Only one OL on the entire two-deep weighs more than 300 pounds, and there are three freshmen (two true, one redshirt) listed; whomever starts at center will be making his very first snap at the college level this Saturday. There's not a lot of depth in the receiving corps, and the defensive line (which switches to a 3-4 alignment this fall) loses three starters from last year.
It's also worth mentioning that even though Greg Ward Jr is returning, there's no guarantee that he'll be starting at quarterback. Utah transfer Adam Schultz is also vying for the job, and we're likely to see both play on Saturday. It's too early to fret over a "quarterback controversy," but as of right now this position remains unsettled.
The Schedule: the schedule is generally favorable; the Coogs have seven home games and host
two of their tougher in-conference opponents, Memphis and Cincinnati,
at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars also get Vanderbilt, their lone opponent from a Power 5 conference, at home on Halloween.
What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts Houston at #60 in the nation with a starting rating of 71.11. This would imply a 9-3 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration. Congrove, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins 12 out of the last 21 seasons, ranks the Coogs 71st to begin the season and envisions a 7-5 record. Massey starts Houston at the 75th position and foresees an 8-4 record.
What I Think: If the Cougars end up with another eight-win season in 2015, pigskin pundits will ask why Houston bothered to change coaching staffs, and whether they actually experienced an upgrade. That being said, there are just too many uncertainties with this team - new coaching staff, undersized and inexperienced offensive line, a new scheme in the defensive front seven, weakness at the receiver positions - that make it difficult for me to predict anything more than an eight-win season, especially with Louisville and Central Florida on the road and Memphis, Cincinnati and an SEC team at home.
I am going to predict eight wins for the Cougars over the course of the regular season. That may be good enough to win the AAC west, if they can get past Memphis. But a conference title is probably too much to ask in 2015.
See ESPN, Bloguin, Athlon, SBNation, and Maddux Sports for further previews of the 2015 University of Houston football team. USA Today has an excellent overview of the entire American Athletic Conference.