Wednesday, August 29, 2018

2018 Houston Cougar Football Preview

And there is much rejoicing, for another glorious season of college football has finally arrived.

Looking Back: The "major" story of the 2017 season was the beginning of the Major Applewhite era at UH, as he took over the program's reigns after Lying Judas Tom Herman took the money and ran up to Austin. In addition to becoming a head coach for the first time, Applewhite had to fill some vacancies both within his staff and on the field, including finding a replacement for Greg Ward, Jr. at quarterback. Applewhite also had to lead his team through the disruption caused by Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the city and caused the season's opening game to be canceled. It all resulted in a mediocre 7-5 record, which included a loss to Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. There were bright spots, such as an upset of #17 South Florida on the road and the emergence of dual-threat D'Eriq King at quarterback. There were also dark spots, such as the road losses to horrible Tulsa and Tulane squads, a sputtering offense that averaged 23.8 points per game (the program's worst offensive output since 2005), and a defensive secondary that got lit up for an average of 274 passing yards per game (good for #120 out of 130 FBS teams).

I sensed that 2017 would be a rebuilding year, which is why I predicted a 6-5 regular season record, discounting the canceled UTSA game. However, as I said when the season ended, 2017 didn't feel so much like a "rebuilding" year as it did a "throwaway" year marked by transition and disruption.

The Big Story for 2018: two big stories, actually. number one is, of course, "Big Ed" Oliver. The defensive tackle has announced that this season will be his last before he turns pro, and some people are predicting that he could go #1 in the NFL draft next spring. ESPN lists Oliver as the nation's best college football player going into the 2018 season; he also graces a regional cover of Sports Illustrated:

Good news, Ed: the Astros ended the SI cover jinx for you last November! 
Another story concerns new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, the son of former UH coach Art Briles and formerly the OC of the Baylor Bears. Briles is known for his high-scoring offenses; however, given his association with the scandal-ridden Baylor football program, this decision is not without controversy. Applewhite decided that breathing some life into a struggling offense was worth the risk of hiring somebody tainted by association with Baylor's rape culture. UH officials supported Applewhite's hire, and apparently there are clauses in Briles' contract that allow for his dismissal for cause if new allegations come to light or if he otherwise doesn't keep his nose clean here. Hopefully this will work out for everyone, and Kendal can get the Cougars to put points on the board again while keeping himself clean of further scandal.

Reasons for Optimism: aside from the presence of Ed Oliver, D'Eriq King has now had an entire offseason to practice under center and should pick up where he left off. King, who took over the  starting job midway through the 2017 season, is probably the reason why the Cougars actually managed a winning record last fall. It doesn't hurt that he has an experienced offensive line, anchored by center Will Noble, to protect him. Talent has also been infused into the team through several grad transfers from other FBS programs. Baylor transfer Terence Williams is expected to immediately give the Cougars some legitimacy at running back (2017 starter Duke Catalon has left the program), Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson brings some SEC-caliber experience to a backfield that already features three-year starter Greg Davis, and TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers joins Ed Oliver on the defensive line.

Reasons for Pessimism: Major Applewhite is still unproven as a head coach, and some of the games last year (not just the WTF losses to horrible Tulsa and Tulane teams, but the 17-point second-half collapse against Memphis) don't really speak well of his abilities to motivate and get the most out of his players. There are also a lot of holes the Coogs need to fill going into the season. The receiving crops will need to find replacements for several graduating players, including Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner. The linebacking corps needs to fill the gap left by the losses of D'Juan Hines and Matthew Adams, who led the defense in tackles last year. And, while the Coogs look relatively solid at safety, they don't have a lot of depth at cornerback.

The Schedule: the Cougars play seven games in the city of Houston and only three games outside the state of Texas. Arizona is going to be a hard start to the season, road games against Texas Tech and Memphis (both of which beat the Coogs last season) will be tough, and a back-to-back road stretch against ECU and Navy won't be a picnic, either. UH does, however, have the opportunity to exact revenge against Tulsa and Tulane at home. UH has an off week in late September, allowing them extra time to prepare for the start of conference play.

What the Humans Think: Sports Illustrated's writers are high on the Cougars. In addition to putting Ed Oliver on the cover of their magazine, they've also ranked the Cougars #20 in their preseason top 25 and some of their writers have UH making it to a New Year's Six bowl game. The Coogs don't get nearly as much love from the AP sportswriters or USA Today coaches, although they did receive votes in both preseason polls. The UH sportswriter for the Chronicle, Joseph Duarte, foresees a 10-2 campaign for Houston, with losses to Texas Tech and Arizona. Underdog Dynasty predicts a 10-2 record as well. SBNation gives the Cougars a 50% or higher probability of winning in 9 of their 12 regular season games. CollegeFootballNews sets the O/U on the Coogs' win total at 8.5. The SWC Roundup has the Cougars winning 9 games and losing 2 (Texas Tech and Memphis), with the Arizona game being a pure toss-up. Athlon ranks the Coogs #52 overall to start the season and foresees a 7-5 record, while Dave Campbell's Texas Football predicts a 9-3 record.

The Washington Post doesn't predict a win total but does expect Houston to finish third in the American West, even though they rate the Coogs as one of the top ten Group of Five programs going into the season (they have Memphis and Navy ranked higher). Most of the sportswriters at CBS also expect the Cougars to finish 2nd or 3rd in the division, behind Memphis and, in some cases, Navy.

What the Computers Think: again, a mixed bag. Sagarin's beginning-of-season seedings place the Cougars 46th, with a rating of 74.10. That implies a record of nine wins and three losses when the ratings of other teams and home field advantage are factored in. The Congrove algorithm, on the other hand, foresees a 5-7 record for the Coogs. Massey's probabilistic forecasts give UH a 50% or higher chance of winning 8 games; the same is true for ESPN FPI.

What I Think: if 2017 was a "throwaway" year, then 2018 is the year that Major Applewhite needs to prove himself. He certainly has the resources to do so: Ed Oliver's final season, an influx of "one-and-done" grad transfer talent, a new offensive coordinator, and a dual-threat quarterback with an entire offseason of first-team practice under his belt. Sure, there are areas of concern: the running game and pass defense need to improve, a relatively untested receiving and linebacking corps need to prove their worth, and the team as a whole needs to maintain its focus in ways that they did not against Tulsa and Tulane last year. Obviously this team needs to stay healthy, but all the ingredients appear to be in place for a successful 2018.

With all that said, I just can't bring myself to expect a ten-win season because my faith in Applewhite's coaching abilities just isn't there yet. If it weren't for the fact that the Navy game is on the road I would go with nine wins, but it is so I am predicting an 8-4 regular season record, with losses to Arizona, Texas Tech, Navy and Memphis. I realize that is not much improvement over last year, and I know that eight wins is well below the expectations of the UH faithful, but that's my honest opinion. I sincerely hope Major Applewhite, his staff and his players prove me wrong by notching ten or more wins and winning the American West division.

No comments: