Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Houston 28, Navy 20

After (yet another) sluggish start, the Cougars rallied to defeat the Midshipmen and secure their third victory in a row.

The Good: Marcus Jones had an 73-yard punt return in the first quarter, which were the only points scored by Houston in the first half. He also caught a 47-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Tune early in the fourth quarter, which would give the Coogs the lead for good (good on Tune for standing in the pocket and finding Jones on this play, even though he got absolutely destroyed by a Navy defender as he launched the ball). RB Ta'Zhawn Henry had two rushing touchdowns. After struggling in the first half, the UH defense kept the Navy option attack out of the endzone in the second half and forced a turnover.

The Bad: Aside from Jones's punt return, the first half was a disaster.  Navy scored their first touchdown less than a minute into the game. Houston trailed 17-7 at halftime, and the score would have even been worse if Navy's secondary didn't drop two sure interceptions. Special teams missed one field goal, and a chance to attempt a second field goal right before halftime was squandered due to some truly bizarre decisions made on that drive. 

The Ugly: Ryan breaks down the multititde of mistakes made on Houston's truly-bizarre possession right before halftime.

What It Means: The Cougars have a three-game winning streak going, but things get tougher from here. After spending the entire month of September playing in the City of Houston, they now hit the road for back-to-back games.

Net up for Houston is a Friday night game at Tulsa.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Houston 45, Grambling State 0

Grambling State University's World Famed Tiger Marching Band paid a visit to TDECU Stadium last Saturday. They brought their football team along with them, which lost to the Cougars.

The Good: Ike Ogbogu filled in for an injured Clayton Tune at quarterback and performed admirably, completing 14 of 22 passes for 196 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Alton McCaskill ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns, and Marcus Jones returned a punt 48 yards for a score. The Houston defense held Grambling to three first downs and 103 yards of total offense. The Tigers were 0 for 14 on third down conversion attempts. 

Regardless of opponent, that's an excellent defensive performance. Ryan notes the improvement of the Houston defense since the middle of last season.

The Bad: The Cougar offense got off to another slow start. Their first three drives ended in a missed field goal, an interception (Tune would leave the game shortly after throwing it), and a punt. The Cougars were fortunate enough to be playing a team that wasn't good enough to take advantage of this sloppy start.

The Ugly: The sound system at TDECU was dreadful. It was ear-splittingly loud - so loud, in fact, that the audio was completely distorted on some of the presentations and commercials they ran. Hopefully some technical adjustments will be made before this weekend's game.

What It Means: Grambling State is an FCS program (and not a very good one, at that), so I'm not sure how much one can take away from this game. This win does, however, represent the first back-to-back victory in the Dana Hologrsen era. Are we getting our moneys' worth yet? 

The Cougars host Navy for their conference opener this Saturday.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Houston 44, Rice 7

The Cougars won their first game of the season, defeating crosstown rival Rice and retaining possession of the Bayou Bucket.

The Good: Clayton Tune had a solid game, throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns and, more importantly, throwing no interceptions. He was also the team's leading rusher. RB Alton McCaskill rushed for two scores and caught another. The Cougar defense made life miserable for Rice QB Luke McCaffery, limiting him to 86 yards and one TD, intercepting him thrice, and sacking him four times.

The Bad: While Tune didn't turn the ball over, he still had two fumbles. He recovered both but he still needs to focus on protecting the ball. I also really could have done without some of the stupid penalties (unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer, etc.) committed by Houston. The Coogs ended the evening getting flagged seven times for 89 yards.

The Ugly: The game ended with a pick-six, as UH cornerback Alex Hogan intercepted a McCaffery pass and ran it back 91 yards as time expired. Given that the Cougars were already up by 33 points at the time, Hogan probably should have shown better sportsmanship and just taken a knee. 

What it means: Saturday's game marked the 50th anniversary of Houston's first game against Rice. The Cougars now lead the all-time series between the two schools 32-11. 

Next up for Houston is their first true home game of the year, as they host Grambling State at TDECU Stadium.

Hurricane Nicholas

Nicholas abruptly strengthened to a hurricane and made landfall Monday evening, but Corinne and I felt relatively safe. We were well-stocked with supplies. Flooding and major wind damage weren't major concern; we are on the fourth floor of a concrete midrise apartment complex in a neighborhood that drained pretty well during Harvey. 

I was, however, concerned about losing electricity. Unpleasant memories from previous weather events - the blackouts caused by last February's freeze, the two weeks I was without power following Hurricane Ike - played in my mind as I lay in bed Monday night, periodically looking at Centerpoint's outage tracker and watching the numbers of customers without electricity climb as Nicholas slowly crept closer.

Luckily, our power never went out. The storm eventually passed, we checked in with friends and family to make sure everybody else was okay, and normal life resumed.

I know not everybody was as lucky as we were. In fact, according to Eric Berger, Nicholas could have been a lot worse had its track just been a little bit different:

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains (10-20 inches, which fell offshore) directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

These storms are inherently random; their paths and effects are not always easy to predict. It's why you can't leave hurricanes to chance. Always be prepared.

Kuff's thoughts are similar to mine.

The Big XII (finally) invites Houston

The Cougars appear to be finally getting their long-desired wish of joining an elite collegiate athletics conference:
The Big 12 presidents and chancellors voted on Friday to accept BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF into the conference.

In a statement, the Big 12 said the four schools were "approved unanimously by the eight continuing members."

The move comes less than two months after Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas announced they would join the SEC by July 1, 2025, leaving the future of the remaining eight schools in the Big 12 in a precarious position. Big 12 officials moved quickly to make the league whole again, forming a subcommittee that concluded that the most successful football schools in the American Athletic Conference -- Cincinnati, Houston and UCF -- were the top choices, along with independent BYU. The Big 12 was waiting until this week when those schools formally indicated they wanted to join the conference.
After being rejected for Big 12 three times - once when the conference was originally created in the mid-90s, once in 2011, and once again in 2016 - it's nice to see the University of Houston finally being offered that coveted seat at the big boy conference table. 

The move to the Big 12 won't just benefit Houston's football program; Ryan points out that the new-look Big 12 will be one of the best basketball conferences in the nation, and that Houston's inclusion will positively affect all sports: 
Most importantly, the Big 12 means better conference rivalries that will draw better crowds, increase donations and gameday revenue, and significantly boost UH’s share of TV rights monies. The league will help UH recruiting in every sport, especially football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and softball.
There's no denying that this is very good news, even as I recognize that the Big 12 the Cougars are set to join is not the same conference it was when programs like Nebraska or Texas A&M were members, and certainly won't be the same after Texas and Oklahoma decamp to the more lucrative pastures of the SEC. The remaining Big XII schools are not adding Houston, UCF, BYU and Cincinnati to replace the prestige and viewer appeal of Texas and Oklahoma - there is no school available that can do that - but are simply trying to preserve relevance. In that regard, Houston's location in a major media market - one that the Big 12 would otherwise completely cede to the SEC - was a plus for UH's inclusion.

That being said, I'm still hesitant to pop my champagne bottles just yet. It will be a few years before Houston finally plays in the reconfigured Big 12, and a lot can happen between now and then. If I sound a bit cynical, it's because I've seen the Cougars get screwed too many times before.

Ever since the demise of the Southwest Conference and the rise of the Big 12 in the mid-90s, the University of Houston has been on the outside looking in: banished to lower-profile conferences that didn't command huge television contracts, didn't get attention from the most talented recruits, and whose members could never hope to play for national championships. During that time, the gap between these "have-nots" and the "haves" of college football - the conferences with the "name brand" schools, the generous TV contracts, and the high-profile bowl tie-ins - has only widened. The Cougars, of course, did not do themselves any favors due to lousy attendance, losing programs, weak administrations and substandard facilities. But the inherent inequity of this self-reinforcing arrangement still stung.

A decade ago, it looked like the Cougars might finally join the ranks of the "haves," when the Big East, which at the time was one of six conferences that automatically qualified for the Bowl Championship Series, invited the Cougars to join. 

Shortly thereafter, however, the conference fell apart. First Notre Dame left the conference, followed by Rutgers, Louisville, and the rest of the non-football schools (which took the "Big East" moniker with them). Finally, Boise State and San Diego State, which had been invited to join the conference, backed out. When it was all over, the Cougars found themselves in a weaker, cobbled-together American Athletic Conference; the elite "BCS Six" conferences had contracted down to the "Power Five," and the Cougars once again found themselves on the outside looking in.

What makes anybody think this won't happen to Houston again? What if the ACC, Big 10 and PAC 12, in a desire to bolster their own TV contracts and continue accumulating the best recruits, reverse their current "no expansion" stances and pick off some of the Big 12's remaining high-profile programs before the Coogs even have a chance to play a down in it? What if the "Power Five" further contracts down to the "Super Four," leaving the remaining Big XII schools - Houston included - out in the cold once again?

Going further, what if this "Super Four" eventually leaves the NCAA and forms a top-level NFL feeder league that pays its recruits and dominates coverage of the sport? This eventuality is oftentimes speculated as the ultimate endgame for college football, and recent developments such as the name, image and likeness policy as well as the Supreme Court's Alston decision might be steps in that direction. If and when that day comes, schools like Houston will be damned to eternal irrelevance, and I will no longer be a college football fan at all because the sport will have been ruined.

Obviously, I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope Houston's ascension to the Power Five world goes off as planned and the program finally gets the attention and revenue it deserves. 

But until then, the champagne stays chilled.

The Cougars are set to join the Big 12 no later than July 1, 2024, but will probably join earlier if a buyout deal with the American Athletic Conference can be worked out. As for the American, they will probably look to poach teams from Conference USA or the Sun Belt, as the conference realignment dominos continue to fall.

 The Daily Cougar, Sean Pendergast and Ryan have more.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Texas Tech 38, Houston 21

New season, same results.

The Good: The first half. The Cougars came out playing aggressively, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, attempting and recovering an onside kick, and subsequently scoring a second touchdown. Houston went for it on fourth down three separate times during their first two scoring drives, and Texas Tech's offense didn't even get the ball until the 2:13 mark of the first quarter. The Cougars recovered a Red Raider fumble at the goal line in the second quarter, and scored a third touchdown at the end of the second quarter to lead 21-7 at the half.

The Bad: The second half. The wheels simply came off for the Coogs. Texas Tech scored 31 unanswered points while the Cougars were intercepted three times (one for a pick-six), had negative rushing yards, and converted only one of seven third down attempts. The aggressiveness the Cougars exhibited in the first half was gone, replaced by complete ineptitude on offense (and some really lousy tackling on defense). At one point in the second half, the UH offense started a series with a 1st and 5, and ended it at a 4th and 8. That's... remarkable.

The Ugly: Under Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars have developed an ugly pattern wherein they seem incapable of putting together two solid halves of football. Last year they started out slow in the first half of several games and had to make furious (but futile) rallies in the second half. This time, they jumped out to an aggressive lead in the first half but cratered in the second half, which is reminiscent of some of the games the Cougars played in 2019.

For more ugliness, look at some statistics Ryan compiled. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw four interceptions last Saturday. That's the third time in his Houston career that he's thrown that many picks in one game.

What It Means: In my season preview, I explained that I was "unconvinced" about a lot of things relating to this team, from the quarterback to the offensive line to the head coach. It appears my skepticism was well-deserved. This team has not made any improvement over the offseason and we're in for another long, disappointing season led a by an apathetic head coach who is swindling this university to the tune of $4 million per year. 

Next up for the Coogs is a short trip to Rice Stadium to face their crosstown rival, the Owls. 

What's the big deal about hatch chiles?

The Chron's Abigail Rosenthal considers the much-hyped pepper:

There are a few particular agricultural seasons Texans always look forward to: pecan season, peach season, grapefruit season, and, of course, hatch chile season. 

And judging by H-E-B's display, hatch chile season is a marquee event.

Hatch chiles are specifically grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico—it's not really a hatch chile unless it was grown there, much like a sparkling wine isn't champagne unless it was produced in the Champagne province of France. Their season is relatively short too, only occurring in August and September each year.  

But some don't buy into the hype. One Chron editor, in particular, has said hatch chiles are basically just poblanos and not worth all the banners and specially made products. We collectively scoffed and shook our heads, tuning out this blasphemy.  

Every August, when I walk into an HEB, I am so inundated by hatch chile products that I feel I'm in a scene from Forrest Gump: “Well, let’s see... There’s hatch chile cheese, hatch chile chicken, hatch chile sausage, hatch chile chips, hatch chile shrimp, hatch chile pasta, hatch chile salsa, hatch chile bacon, hatch chile beer...” While I do enjoy some of the hatch chile products that appear in HEB during that month, it also strikes me as a bit over the top. Are these chiles really that special?

                                                                                                                 Fresh hatch chiles at Central Market on Westheimer

The hatch chile is simply a type of New Mexico Chile, which itself is a cultivar of Capiscum annuum. This species of chile pepper includes the anaheim, cayenne, jalapeƱo, poblano, and serrano. There are multiple types of New Mexico Chile, varying in size, color and amount of Scoville Heat Units they contain. As Rosenthal notes, the "hatch chile" is specific to chiles grown in the Hatch Valley, which is located along the Rio Grande north of Las Cruces. 

Perhaps that valley possesses a "terroir" - the amount of sun it gets, the composition of the soil there - that imbues a specific flavor to the hatch chile. I'm admittedly not a chile pepper connoisseur, so I may be missing out on the subtleties and nuances of the hatch that makes it so distinctive and deserving of the marketing hype bestowed upon it by HEB and other grocers.

Rosenthal put the hatch chile to a (taste) test, creating one salsa with it and and another salsa with its cousin, the poblano pepper:

The salsas had subtle differences, but among the Chron staff tasters, they were almost indiscernible (and in need of some jalapeƱos). Our social media editor Sarah Pearce summed it up best: "If I was given the salsas separately at a taco truck, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

The hatch chile salsa was a bit sweeter, brighter and had a little more zing, while the poblano salsa was earthier. Both were delicious, but our two blind taste testers couldn't correctly guess which salsa was made with hatch chiles. 
Rosenthal concludes that the poblano is a perfectly acceptable, year-round substitute for the hatch. Which is good, because it - and its hype - won't be back for another year.

Friday, September 03, 2021

2021 Houston Cougar Football Preview (and a Word about Realignment)

Before I jump into my season preview, I should probably acknowledge the big news of the offseason, which is the impending relocation of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big XII conference to the SEC. This news was sudden but shouldn't have been surprising, considering the Big XII's historical instability and the University of Texas's insatiable greed. 

Texas and OU's move to the SEC, which will happen sometime before the 2025 season, is likely going to have a huge effect on all of college football. The Big Ten, PAC-12 and ACC have formed an "alliance" to counter any advantages the new, 16-team SEC might gain, while further discussions about expanding the College Football Playoff may be put on hold while things shake out. 

The Big XII, for its part, appears ready to make up for the losses of Texas and Oklahoma by inviting the University of Houston and three other schools to join their party. Assuming the Big XII can retain its status as a "Power 5" conference, this move would be of obvious benefit for the Cougar athletics program. However, I'm not going to start popping the champagne bottles yet, as I've seen the Coogs get screwed by conference realignment before. Should the Cougars actually receive that golden ticket and join the top tier of the college football world, they will be facing a new level of competition on the field and they will need to show that they deserved the promotion.

Unfortunately, Houston has not been competitive - the 2019 and 2020 seasons are the Coogs' first back-to-back losing seasons since the end of the Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitude - and head coach Dana Holgorsen goes into his third season at the helm feeling some pressure to win. The current unsettled nature of the college football landscape is only going to add to that pressure. 

With all that said, here's my take on the 2021 UH Cougar football season, which begins tomorrow evening at NRG Stadium against current Big XII member Texas Tech:

Looking back: the 2020 season was so plagued by COVID-related disruptions and cancellations - the Cougars only played seven out of their twelve scheduled regular-season games - that it's hard to take away a lot from it other than that UH was decidedly mediocre. They beat the teams they were expected to beat, but fell short of notching statement wins against BYU and Memphis and were thoroughly outclassed by UCF and Cincinnati. The Cougars ended the 2020 season with a 3-5 record.

The Big Story for 2021: Dana Holgorsen has a 7-13 record after two seasons at Houston, and clearly is not living up to the expectations that come with his $4 million/year salary. It's time for him to change the narrative; for his own sake as well as the sake of the program, he really needs to put together a winning season this fall.

Reasons for Optimism: the schedule - assuming the Cougars get to play all of it this season - is pretty easy. The opponents on this schedule combined for a record of 41-51 last season. The Coogs play seven games in the City of Houston, they get SMU and Memphis at home, and they avoid Cincinnati and Central Florida - the two teams that utterly embarrassed them last year - altogether.

Clayton Tune returns at quarterback. He has 17 starts under his belt and showed flashes of brilliance last fall. The time is now for him to step up and break the offense open. He has plenty of experience to work with, including sixth-year senior Mulbah Car at running back, junior tight end Christian Trahan, and junior wide receiver Jeremy Singleton. 

The defense showed improvement in 2020 and could be pretty stout this fall. While last year's two best players - Grant Stuard and Payton Turner - are now in the NFL, there's still a wealth of talent for new defensive coordinator Doug Belk to work with. Keep your eye on cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams, as well as defensive end David Anenih, linebacker Deontay Anderson, and hybrid DE/LB Derek Parish. 

Reasons for Pessimism: Clayton Tune's experience aside, he has not been spectacular at this position. He turned the ball over way too many times last season (10 interceptions and three fumbles), took way too many sacks, and only completed 15 touchdown passes. Of course, Tune can only be as good as the protection his offensive line gives him, and until proven otherwise the OL is this team's biggest weakness. 

The receiving corps is another area of concern. A lot of talent has been lost from last year's team, as Marquez Stevenson joined the NFL and several other players either transferred out or were declared academically ineligible. WRs coach and UH football legend Tyron Carrier was mysteriously and unceremoniously dismissed from his job last spring, suggesting that this may be a platoon in turmoil.

One of Houston's biggest problems last year were slow starts. In six of the eight games they played last season, the Cougars trailed by double digits at some point in the first half. While the Coogs oftentimes made second half rallies, these were usually too little, too late. If the Cougars are to win games his fall, they need to jump out to leads early in the game.

What the Humans Think: Athlon acknowledges that the team's depth has improved but that questions remain, especially on the offensive side of the ball. "The schedule is favorable enough with seven games in Houston that anywhere from eight to 10 wins should be the expectation," they write. College Football News anticipates a nine win season, while Dave Campbell's Texas Football pegs the Coogs as an 8-4 team. CBS Sports ranks the Coogs 72nd (out of 130 FBS teams) to start the season, and their panel of sportswriters generally has a mediocre outlook for them. For what it's worth the Coogs also garnered a handful of votes in the preseason AP top 25 poll.

What the Computers Think: 

Sagarin's initial ratings put Houston 66th with an starting rating of 70.85. That would imply a record of 10 and 2, when the ratings of opposing schools and the home field advantage are taken into account (the game against Texas Tech at NRG stadium is considered to be neutral-site). ESPN's FPI suggests that the Cougars will have an 8-4 season this fall (although the SMU and Memphis games are essentially toss-ups) Congrove predicts a 7-5 record for Houston, while Massey's algorithm foresees a 6-6 record (although five of those games are essentially tossups).

What I think: I've heard all the arguments for why this will be a good season for the Cougars: the schedule is easier, quarterback Clayton Tune has more starts under his belt, the defense has been steadily improving, a lot of talent is coming onto the team through the transfer portal, etc. But it really seems like I've heard these arguments before. Right now, I'm unconvinced.

I'm not convinced that Clayton Tune can transcend the limits of his natural skillset, nor am I convinced that the offensive line can protect him, nor am I convinced that he has a strong and talented corps of receivers to throw to. While the defense might be fun to watch this fall, defenses don't score points. I expect the Cougars to be involved in a lot of low-scoring slogs. 

Moreover, I'm not convinced that this is really what Dana Holgorsen wants to be doing. I've watched his demeanor on the sidelines, I've noticed his less-than-impressive recruiting effort, I've seen his offenses sputter even though he is supposedly an offensive genius. Sometimes I feel that he just wants to collect a few more fat paychecks at UH's expense and head off into the sunset. 

There's really no excuse for this team not to win nine or ten games with this relatively weak schedule, but I'm not convinced they will. So I'm going on record with a prediction of a 6-6 7-5* season for the Houston Cougars this fall, with a season-opening loss to Texas Tech at NRG, road losses to Tulane, Tulsa and Temple, and home losses to SMU and Memphis.

I hope that Dana Holgorsen and the Cougars convince me that I am wrong.

*After I drafted this, Tulsa lost to FCS program California-Davis at home, which would suggest that they are a weaker program than I originally anticipated.