Wednesday, November 24, 2021

#17 Houston 31, Memphis 13

The Cougars defeated Memphis at TDECU Stadium last Friday, ending their five-year losing streak to the Tigers.

The Good: Clayton Tune passed for 264 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 59 yards and a touchdown. Ta'Zhawn Henry and Alton McCaskill combined for 131 rushing yards and two TDs. On defense, Marcus Jones notched two interceptions - one of which was an amazing one-handed grab - and the Tigers were limited to just two third-down conversions on 14 attempts. Special teams also blocked a Memphis punt. 

The Bad: After a five-game streak without throwing any interceptions, Tune threw two against Memphis. The first one was tipped and wasn't really his fault, but the second - an attempt to throw into the endzone into double coverage - was ill-advised (especially since that turnover took away what should have been an easy field goal). 

The Ugly: Too many penalties. The Cougars were flagged 11 times for 122 yards;  Dana Holgorsen even had a personal foul penalty called on him after he chewed into the officiating crew.  To be fair, this was not a well-officiated game.

The Scary: Early in the game, Houston junior linebacker Donavan Mutin was knocked out cold while trying to tackle a Memphis player and had to be removed from the field on a stretcher. Fortunately, he'll be okay, but at the time things looked dire indeed.

What It Means: In addition to breaking their five-year losing streak to Memphis, the Cougars notched only their second undefeated conference record in program history and achieved double-digit wins for the first time since 2015.

Ryan, Underdog Dynasty and Paper City have more.

The Cougars end the regular season with a road trip to face former conference mate Connecticut.

USFL 2.0 announces teams

Following up on this item... The new USFL has announced its teams, one of which will be familiar to Houstonians:

The new United States Football League is launching in April and the Houston Gamblers - the same name as the city's original USFL entry in 1984 and 1985 - are one of eight teams in the startup league.

Judging by the team's Twitter account, the Gamblers will utilize the same red-and-black color scheme and logo used by the original Gamblers.

The new USFL, which is owned by FOX Sports, will play its 10-game schedule in one location with teams expected to play in their own markets in future seasons.

The league's teams all have the same names from the original USFL, which lasted three seasons. Besides the Gamblers, the teams are: Birmingham Stallions, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits, Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers.

Some quick observations:

  • They've tweaked some of the original logos, but not Houston's, because the Gamblers logo was a brilliant design to begin with. Almost 40 years later and anybody in this city can still easily recognize it. 
  • They've bringing back teams and locations from the original USFL as it existed in 1984. By the 1985 season, the Stars had moved from Philly to Baltimore, the Breakers had moved from New Orleans to Portland, and the Panthers had merged with the Oakland Invaders. (This was all done in preparation for the 1986 fall season that never happened.) 1984 was also the inaugural year for both the Gamblers and Maulers.
  • With the exception of Birmingham (which is where all the games are expected to be played in 2022), all of the teams they've resurrected are in existing NFL markets in the Eastern and Central time zones. They're not resurrecting any West Coast teams (i.e. Arizona Outlaws, LA Express, Oakland Invaders, Denver Gold). This suggests that 1) they want to focus on generating viewership in established pro football media markets, and 2) FOX plans early kickoffs that won't get a lot of viewership out west. 

I'm not expecting too much from this league, since it's basically just a rebranding of The Spring League (that didn't even pay its players last year). But it will give me a football team to watch and root for this spring.

Things will really get interesting if this league makes it to 2023 and the XFL reboots in 2023. Could the Gamblers and Roughnecks co-exist in a local spring football market?

The new USFL will begin play in April 2022. 

CBS Sports has some thoughts about the teams and logos.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

#17 Houston 37, Temple 8

The Cougars easily dispatched the Temple Owls last weekend and, in the process, earned a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Who would have expected that at the beginning of the season?!

The Good: Alton McCaskill rushed for 129 yards and two TDs on 21 carries; he now has 15 touchdowns on the season, tied for sixth-most in program history. Clayton Tune completed 21 of 34 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (Tune has not thrown an interception in five games). The defense notched three interceptions and held the Owls to just 10 first downs for the entire game.

The Bad: As good as Tune's numbers were, they would have been better had receivers not dropped several easily catchable passes. He was also sacked three times. Dalton Witherspoon's struggles continue, as he missed one of his two field goal attempts.

The Ugly: Temple football. The Owls are on a five-game losing streak and have scored an average of seven points per game over those five games. They have won only four games going back to the beginning of the 2020 season.

What It Means: Aside from winning eight in a row and punching their ticket to the conference championship game, the Cougars also earned a spot in this week's CFP Playoff rankings (albeit at #24).

Next up for the Coogs is a Friday night game at TDECU against Memphis. The Cougars have not beaten the Tigers since 2015.

Conference realignment follow-up: Conference USA survives

Following up on my post from a few weeks ago: it appears as if the dust has settled and the current flurry of collegiate conference realignment (which is driven primarily by football but affects all sports) has come to an end. At least for now.

The big question in this most recent round of realignment - the survival of Conference USA as a viable FBS football entity - seems to have been resolved. The beleaguered conference was first able to avoid further predations by other conferences, after the Mid-American Conference decided not to invite current C-USA members Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky to join. C-USA then issued invitations to current FBS independents New Mexico State and Liberty, as well as FCS programs Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State. Those invitations were accepted, and those schools will join what will be a nine-team conference - stretching from Lynchburg, Virginia to Las Cruces, New Mexico - in time for the 2023 season. 

The first two additions make sense. While Liberty University is a highly problematic institution, its athletics program is competitive. While New Mexico State's football program is moribund, its mens basketball program is decent (7 tournament appearances in the last decade) and it provides a travel partner for current C-USA member UTEP. Most importantly, both Liberty and NMSU are established FBS football programs. 

Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State (in Jacksonville, Alabama, and not to be confused with my wife's alma mater in Jacksonville, Florida), on the other hand, are not. Both these programs are highly successful at their current level - the Bearkats are reigning FCS champions, and JSU recently gained notoriety by upsetting Florida State - and that, along with the fact that both schools fill geographic gaps for C-USA, are likely why they were offered invitations. But the move to FBS comes with significant commitments - scholarships, salaries, travel - that both schools will need to make. 

The Huntsville Item's Colton Foster thinks SHSU's move "seems like a reach for the program, with major hurdles" such as finances, attendance and facilities that SHSU will have to overcome in order to be competitive in Conference USA. For one thing, the Bearkats will have to compete for recruits and television sets in a crowded FBS neighborhood: Texas A&M is only 50 miles to the west of Huntsville, and Houston and Rice are both 70 miles to the south. 

Conference USA was also apparently courted by two other independents - Massachusetts and Connecticut - but no invitations have been extended to either school. Geography is likely a factor, as is the fact that both schools wanted to be football-only members. One can only imagine how UConn might be regretting their decision to leave the American Athletic Conference a few years ago. 

Old Dominion, on the other hand, seems very pleased about their new home in the Sun Belt (which is probably the biggest winner of this round), while a Rice Thresher article explains why the Owls' move to the American is good for that program. ESPN has updated its college football realignment tracker for those trying to make sense out of this latest shift in the college sports landscape. 

And if you don't like where your school ended up, don't worry: we'll probably be doing this again in a few years.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

#20 Houston 54, South Florida 42

The Cougars traveled to Tampa and came out ahead in a wild shootout shootout that Ryan describes as "the weirdest FBS game of 2021."

The Good: Clayton Tune was 21 of 26 for 385 yards, three TDs, and no interceptions. Alton McCaskill rushed for 125 yards and three scores, while Ta'Zhawn Henry had a 97 yard (!) rush for a touchdown. The Cougars ended the game with 646 yards of total offense and, for the first time in program history, had two 100-yard rushers (Alton McCaskill and Ta'Zhawn Henry) and two 100-yard receivers (Kesean Carter and Tank Dell) in the same game. The UH defense scored a safety and picked off USF QB Timmy McClain twice. 

The Bad: UH special teams allowed South Florida kick returner Brian Battie to return not one, but two (!) kickoffs 100 yards for touchdowns: once at the beginning of the game, and once again shortly before halftime. This makes three kick returns for touchdowns that the Cougars have surrendered in the last two games. The Houston defense yielded 399 yards of total offense to the Bulls; they allowed USF to convert 8 of its 16 third down attempts and could not register a single sack on a maddeningly evasive McClain. 

The Ugly: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Coogs; they were flagged 7 times for 75 yards, and a spectacular 100-yard interception return by Marcus Jones was negated by a holding penalty. 

That being said, Houston's biggest problem right now is kickoff coverage. As Ryan notes, two weeks ago UH was 10th in the country in kick return defense. Now they are 128th. Unacceptable. 

What It Means: The Cougars winning streak is now at eight games and they remain unbeaten in conference. 

This was the first game of back-to-back road trips; Houston now goes to Philadelphia to face Temple. 

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

The College Football Playoff rankings are a joke

Despite being ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches' polls, the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats were ranked #6 in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings that were released last night. If the season were to end today, the Bearcats would be excluded from the playoff. 

Which, of course, is exactly how it's supposed to work. The College Football Playoff and its selection committee are part and parcel of the elitist and exclusionary "Power Five" cartel that refuses to make room at the table for the so-called "Group of Five" schools they refuse to see as equals.

ESPN's Andrea Andelson calls out the CFP rankings for the sham that they are:

The CFP selection committee reminded us all once again that the Group of 5 need not apply to the playoff, that it is judged by a different set of rules, that it might as well be playing for crumpets and not national championships.

Despite the best nonconference record of any undefeated Group of 5 team ever presented to the committee, Cincinnati landed at No. 6 in the first rankings reveal Tuesday -- a complete and utter joke that insults every school that resides outside the major conferences.

The selection committee might pat itself on the back for putting Cincinnati higher than any Group of 5 team in playoff history. But the hypocrisy would be laughable if it was not so pathetic. When UCF went undefeated in 2017 and 2018 and did not even come close to the top four, people like CFP executive director Bill Hancock told us all that if the Knights' nonconference schedule was just a little bit better, who knows what might have happened?

Cincinnati buffed up its nonconference schedule by playing two Power Five schools this season: Indiana and Notre Dame. The Bearcats beat them both - on the road. But that's clearly not good enough for the CFP selection committee, who ranked Cinci lower than one-loss Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State teams. 

The sad truth is this: Every year, the goalposts keep moving. When the playoff was created, we were fed the line that this would help Group of 5 teams finally have a chance after the BCS shut out every undefeated Group of 5 program from the top two. So go undefeated and the top four will await!

But then finishing undefeated was not enough. Then they were told they should build strong nonconference schedules, and also go undefeated. But also make sure their conference is strong enough to help. But maybe they also need to blow out every opponent now. Cincinnati struggled against Navy and Tulane before pulling away to win the past two weeks. Guess that is not allowed, either.

Cincinnati still has a chance to notch some good conference wins: they play SMU in a few weeks and, if (big if) the Cougars win out, will face Houston in the AAC championship. But those games won't matter to the CFP selection committee: while both of those one-loss teams are ranked by the AP sportswriters and the coaches in their polls, the Cougars and Ponies are rather conveniently absent from the initial CFP rankings. 

It's pretty obvious what's going on here. The CFP selection committee has its marching orders - exclude the Group of Five from the playoff at all costs - and they are following them.

But wait! Won't Group of Five schools have more access to the CFP if it expands? Well, right now, playoff expansion is a pretty big "if." It may not happen at all. 

But wait! Won't this issue become moot when Cincinnati (and Houston, for that matter) join the Big 12 in a few years? Maybe - assuming the new-look Big 12 remains a "Power 5" conference - but that still doesn't address the injustice the Bearcats are facing this season, nor does it address injustices other worthy Group of Five schools - think Boise State, Coastal Carolina, etc. - may face in the future.

The system is rigged; it is rotten. It is bad for college football and it calls for legal or governmental intervention before it completely destroys the sport.

Ryan thinks the inaugural CFP rankings "might be the worst they’ve put out.

Houston 44, #19 SMU 37

In probably one of the more memorable games in recent UH history, the Cougars upset the ranked and undefeated SMU Mustangs in a thrilling, back-and-forth game that was decided after Marcus Jones ran back a 100-yard kickoff return with less than a minute remaining 

The Good: Clayton Tune had his best game as a Cougar: he completed 27 of 37 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns, and was not intercepted. Nathaniel Dell caught nine of those passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns. The UH defense held the SMU rushing attack to 50 yards, limited the Mustangs to 5 of 14 on third down conversion attempts, sacked SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai three times and intercepted him once. The guy who made the interception? Marcus Jones.

The Bad: SMU opened the second half with a kickoff return of their own, a 100-yard score by Brian Massey. Houston's offense only mustered 77 yards on the ground and turned over the ball twice. The Cougar defense allowed Mordecai to rack up 305 passing yards and three TDs through the air. Although penalties weren't as big an issue for the Cougars this time, they were still flagged for 60 yards.

What It Means: This is easily Houston's biggest win in years, and it's resulted in their being ranked (#20 AP, #19 Coaches) for the first time since the 2018 season. The Cougars are 7-1 and remain undefeated in conference. Dana Holgorsen has his first win over a winning team and is now 14-14 as UH's head coach.

Up next for Houston ids a trip to Tampa Bay to face South Florida. Can they avoid a let-down?

Astros fall to Braves in 2021 World Series

I guess I should be happy that the Astros have gone to three World Series in five years. There was a time not too long ago when I never thought I'd ever I'd be typing that sentence. 

To be sure, I wasn't expecting the Astros to win. Being a Houston sports fan, I'm pessimistic by nature, but the Astros really were limping into the World Series with a depleted pitching staff (their ace, Lance McCullars, Jr., was injured and unavailable), while the Braves were going into the fall classic as the hottest team in baseball. While the Astros might have had a chance if their hitting held up, the bats went cold instead. The Astros were shut out twice over the six games of the World Series; Alex Bregman went 2 for 21 at the plate, while Yordan Álvarez - the designated hitter! - was 2 for 20. Those kinds of disappearing acts normally get your picture put on the back of a milk carton. 

Obviously I wanted the Astros to win: because they're my team, and because they needed to prove themselves by winning a World Series without stealing signs (not that it would have made a difference to the team's legions of haters), and because manager Dusty Baker deserved a championship ring to cap off his Hall of Fame career (although he will return to the Astros next season). Alas, they fell short, just like they did two seasons ago. They are now 1-3 all-time in the World Series; they've also lost six out of their last seven World Series games at Minute Maid Park. 

With Carlos Correa likely gone after this season, the future of the team is somewhat murky. This could be the end of the an era of dominance; the Astros's 2017 World Series championship - the one that will always be tarnished because of the cheating scandal - could be their only championship for a long while to come. 

Such is life as a Houston sports fan.

Jeff Balke, Brian T. Smith and Dan Martin have more.