Wednesday, December 01, 2021

#19 Houston 45, Connecticut 17

The Cougars concluded the 2020 regular season with a trip to Connecticut and had little trouble defeating one of the worst teams in FBS for their eleventh win of the season.

The Good: Clayton Tune threw for 301 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, nor was he sacked. Jake Herslow and Jeremy Singleton both had 100 or more receiving yards, while the UH ground game combined for 160 rushing yards and two scores. The Cougar defense tallied seven sacks and recovered a fumble, while special teams blocked a field goal. 

The Bad: The Cougar offense sputtered early in the game, as they turned the ball over on downs twice. A bad Laine Wilkins punt (four yards!) in the second quarter set up the Huskies' first touchdown. Ike Ogbogu came in for Tune in the fourth quarter and was immediately intercepted for another UConn touchdown. 

Given how bad UConn is, of course, none of these miscues made much of a difference in the outcome of the game.

The Could-Have-Been-Really-Bad: Running back Alton McCaskill was hurt and had to exit the game for the second game in a row. Receiver Nathaniel Dell also took a nasty hit and got knocked out of the game as well. Both are reported to be okay and should play this weekend; however, it goes to show the risks associated with playing what is essentially a meaningless game late in the season.

What It Means: The Cougars have notched at least eleven wins for only the 5th time in program history and currently have the nation's third longest winning streak (behind Georgia and Cincinnati and tied with Louisiana-Lafayette). 

Speaking of Cincinnati, the Coogs now travel to face them for the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday. At stake for Houston is an opportunity to spoil the Bearcats' aspirations for a CFP berth and secure themselves a trip to a New Year's Six bowl.

North Texas spoils UTSA's bid for a perfect season

The University of Texas at San Antonio was one of three undefeated football teams in FBS heading into the last weekend of the regular season; in order to secure a perfect season, all they had to do was notch a win over a 5-6 North Texas team in Denton. It didn't go well.

No. 15 UTSA’s undefeated season ended in a blowout as North Texas running backs DeAndre Torrey and Ikaika Ragsdale combined for five touchdowns in a 45-23 rout of the Roadrunners on Saturday.

Quarterback Frank Harris had two of UTSA’s three lost fumbles among six overall before sitting the second half at UNT’s rain-soaked Apogee Stadium, a 10-year-old facility where a Top 25 team had never played.

UTSA (11-1, 7-1 Conference USA), which never started with more than five consecutive wins in the program’s first nine seasons, is still hosting the conference championship game Friday night against Western Kentucky. No. 1 Georgia and fourth-ranked Cincinnati are the remaining undefeated FBS teams.

The Roadrunners, ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense, had given up six touchdowns on the ground all season. The Mean Green (6-6, 5-3) matched that late in the third quarter of their fifth consecutive victory that followed a six-game losing streak as UNT earned bowl eligibility.

Playing in cold and wet conditions, the Mean Green took advantage of UTSA miscues as well as a ground attack that gashed the Roadrunners for 340 rushing yards and six touchdowns. North Texas outgained UTSA by almost 100 yards and dominated time of possession. 

After the game UNT head coach Seth Littrell described the win as "the biggest win I've had and we've had as a program." He's got a point: going into this game, North Texas was 1-47 all-time (!) against ranked teams.

While the Roadrunners were never in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth, an undefeated season could have sent them to a New Year's Six bowl, depending on how other conference championships played out. Aside from that, an perfect season would have been a tremendous accomplishment in its own right for UTSA's relatively young program. 

Alas. USTA's streak was ended - they're no longer even ranked in the AP top 25 - while a North Texas program which had been left for dead earlier in the season extended its own winning streak to five games and is now bowl eligible. It's a truly remarkable end to UNT's regular season, and a stinging loss for the Roadrunners. 

Both schools are currently members of Conference USA but will continue to play each other when they both join the American in a couple of years.

Underdog Dynasty and the Denton Record Chronicle's Brett Vito have more. 

Incidentally, the UH Cougars open the 2022 season at UTSA.

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. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The conference realignment carousel, and a dire situation for C-USA

Last summer, once Texas and Oklahoma announced their plan to leave the Big XII for the SEC, another round of realignment musical chairs was inevitable. The Big XII backfilled by taking Houston and two other schools from the American Athletic Conference. Now it's the American's turn, and they're poaching a handful of schools from Conference USA: 

Six schools -- Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB -- have accepted invitations to join the American Athletic Conference, the league announced Thursday.

No date has been set for the schools to join the conference, but a source told ESPN that the earliest they could join would be the 2023-24 season.

"I think they will definitely take great advantage of the exposure and the platforms that are going to be provided by this conference," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said of the additions. "So we look forward, down the road, and we're not certain when they're going to come in yet. That's still to be decided."

Once all the announced realignment shuffles out, the additions would give the American 14 teams in football and basketball. Aresco conceded that growing to 14 was a way for a conference that has become a feeder league for the Power 5 to be prepared for future poaching.

While nobody's going to confuse any of these additions for marquee programs, the American clearly hopes that their locations in major media markets - Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, the DFW Metroplex, San Antonio, Houston and Birmingham - will allow the conference to retain at least some of its TV contract value once the Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida depart.

Aside from maintaining the conference's presence in the Houston area, the inclusion of Rice gives the other three private schools in the American - Tulane, SMU and Tulsa - as well as service academy Navy another "peer institution" they they feel comfortable competing against. I'm also happy that the Mean Green got the call up, but they need to earn this promotion by turning their struggling football program around. (I'm somewhat surprised, in fact, that SMU agreed to the addition of a North Texas program that competes with it for recruits and media bandwidth in the Metroplex.)

Normally, one would expect the next domino to fall to be the Sun Belt, which would get raided by C-USA. But in fact the opposite is happening:  

Southern Miss has joined the Sun Belt Conference and will enter the league as a full member no later than July 1, 2023, the league announced Tuesday.

The addition gives the Sun Belt 11 football-playing members (Little Rock and Texas-Arlington are also in the league).

"This is a big day for our conference," Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said in a prepared statement. "Southern Miss brings a host of strengths to our conference. They are competitive across all of their sports, have a strong brand and are supported by a great fan base. The electric atmosphere surrounding their games is a tradition we are proud to now be a part of."

Sources say the Sun Belt also is close to adding Marshall, Old Dominion and James Madison, which would increase the football membership to 14.

Marshall and Old Dominion are also members of C-USA. Why is the Sun Belt also taking a bite out of C-USA, rather than the other way around? 

One reason is on-field success: a few years ago Conference USA may have been perceived as a stronger conference than the Sun Belt, but thanks to recent success from programs such as Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the Sun Belt has overtaken Conference USA in terms of prestige. This appears to be the result of a deliberate strategy on the Sun Belt's part: while other conferences focused on media markets, they focused on competitive programs: 

“At the end of the day it probably doesn’t make a difference if they are in a major metropolitan area or if they are inside the Sun Belt footprint,” former Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told the Daily News-Record this week. “Those teams still have to deliver, particularly on the football field.”

Benson, who retired from his Sun Belt post in 2019 and moved into the world of college sports consulting, put the SBC on its current path during the 2012-13 realignment saga. Conference USA snagged programs in big cities while the Sun Belt looked for passionate fan bases and on-field success.

Fast forward to present day, the Sun Belt could make a case for best Group of Five football league while Conference USA fights for its very existence. That makes it all the more strange the American Athletic Conference chose to follow the C-USA model. The American responded to losing Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida to the Big 12 by adding UT San Antonio, UAB, Florida Atlantic, Rice, Charlotte and North Texas.

To be sure, there is some grousing that the American did not invite any current Sun Belt teams to join. If I had to guess why this is the case, it probably has to do with television network politics: ESPN is the main broadcast partner for both the American and the Sun Belt, while C-USA's main broadcast partner is CBS Sports. ESPN probably told the American to leave the Sun Belt alone and go after a competitor's property instead.

In any case, the end result of the American's and the Sun Belt's predations is that C-USA will be left with five far-flung members - UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, and Florida International - once these moves occur. This makes the conference too small, per NCAA rules, to receive automatic bids to tournaments, and leaves the conference's future in doubt

Conference USA's options are slim. They could add FBS independents like New Mexico State (which has had exactly four winning seasons in the last 30 years, but would be a travel partner for UTEP), or they could entice current Football Championship Subdivision programs, such as Missouri State, to make the move up to FBS. According to Indiana sportswriter Todd Aaron Golden, this marks the "desperation phase" of realignment

C-USA is clinging for life. There aren't many FBS options left for them. When this happens, the fertile fields desperate conferences go to are to the FCS Division, where they try to hook the latest sucker into thinking there's a pot of football gold at the end of the rainbow. 

Golden argues that there is no pot of gold for FCS schools that move up to FBS: whatever revenues schools like Missouri State might gain from being an FBS school will be more than offset by higher salaries, more scholarship requirements, and more travel costs. But that hasn't stopped schools from making the transition in the past, and that's what might save Conference USA.

CFN's Pete Fiutak offers his thoughts on the American's expansion, while Awful Announcing ponders the future of Conference USA. For anybody who is having trouble keeping track of all this collegiate reshuffling, ESPN has a handy realignment tracker.

Houston 31, East Carolina 24 (OT)

A five-and-a-half hour rain delay meant that a game that would have kicked off at 3 pm in front of a homecoming crowd at TDECU ended up kicking off at 8:30 in front of an almost-empty stadium. The ensuing game was hard to watch: Houston had a 24-10 lead at halftime, but the second half was an unholy mess of poor playcalling, even poorer execution, stupid penalties and a disastrous turnover. The Pirates scored twice in the fourth quarter to force overtime, and the UH faithful (the several hundred that were there, at least) once again began to fear the worst. 

Fortunately, the Cougars ended up winning overtime rather easily. Their winning streak now stands at six games.

The Good: Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Alton McCaskill busted off a 25 yard touchdown run on the first play of overtime. The defense forced three fumbles, two of which the Cougars converted into touchdowns and the third of which sealed the overtime victory.

The Bad: The lengthy weather delay was not good for anyone, especially the players, which is why Ryan is willing to cut them some slack for their poor performance: 

But instead of ripping everyone, I think the players should get some leeway here. They were ready and amped up for 3 pm, they went through their routine Friday night and Saturday, ate their pregame meals, did walk-throughs, went to the stadium, got taped up and stretched, and had started drills when the delay began. So they sat in a locker room for hours with little to do other than stretching, doing homework, or playing on their phones. Then, they were given 30 minutes to get up and get mentally and physically prepared for the game. It’s hard to turn that on and off and back on again.

It sucks and that’s partially why the play was uneven and, at times, just flat awful and I’m willing to excuse them for that. Both Tune and ECU QB Holton Ahlers were not good and you have to allow that some of that was the weather delay. Tune missed throws that he hadn’t missed in more than a month and looked tentative like he did in the Tech game and during parts of last year. 

The Ugly: Everything else. Where do I even begin?

  • The Cougars ran for only 87 yards, 25 of which came on McCaskill's game-winning scramble in overtime. 
  • Clayton Tune passed for only 169 yards and was sacked five times. 
  • The offensive line did a piss-poor job at blocking; it was so bad that Dana Holgorsen himself went over and screamed at them when they were on the sideline. Between the poor running attack and the five sacks allowed, it's clear that the O-line is still a huge liability, seven games into the season. 
  • Speaking of Holgorsen, Houston's playcalling was ridiculous and that falls on him. The Coogs ran the wildcat - on third down - three separate times - to no effect.
  • After catching a short pass, Christian Trahan fumbled that ball at the UH 16 yard line. This resulted in East Carolina's game-tying touchdown two plays later.
  • Overall, the Cougar offense was simply inept. Of Houston's 16 possessions, 7 ended in punts, two ended in missed field goals, one ended with a fumble and two ended at the ends of the two halves.
  • The Cougars committed 10 penalties for 80 yards. Some of these were boneheaded personal fouls; a few of them gave ECU a fresh set of downs when the defense seemingly had them stopped.
  • Dalton Witherspoon missed two of three field goal attempts. To be fair, one of them shouldn't have even been attempted.

This isn't to say that ECU's stats were any better. The Pirates turned the ball over three times, converted only one of 12 third down attempts, were 0-3 on fourth down attempts and rushed for only 82 yards themselves. Clearly, the long weather delay adversely affected both teams. This was not a fun game to watch.

What It Means: The ugliest win is always better than the prettiest loss, so I'll take the result. But the Cougars host a ranked SMU team this weekend, and if they play anywhere as close as badly this Saturday as they played last Saturday, they will be humiliated.

At least the weather is expected to be better.

Hurricanes and snowfall, revisited

Many, many years ago, I pondered the relationship between hurricanes and snowfall in Houston, as there seemed to be a prevalent perception among Houstonians that a hurricane striking the Houston region during the summer made it more likely that a snowfall would occur that following winter. I based my post on a now-deleted blog entry from a now-retired local TV meteorologist, who at the time wrote: 

Is there a connection between southeast Texas hurricanes and snowstorms? I don't know. But I do know there are larger patterns within the atmosphere that we don't completely understand. If someone had a lot of time and a lot of money, this would be an interesting weather connection to investigate.

As it turns out, Space City Weather recently did some investigating about this phenomenon and determined that there is no such correlation: 

One of the most common winter forecast refrains I’ve heard since moving to Houston in 2012 is that if we have a hurricane in summer, we almost always have snow in the subsequent winter. 2021 saw us get hit with Hurricane Nicholas, so obviously that means we should get ready for an 1895-style snowball fight, right? In words of the great philosopher Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

After defining what "hit by a hurricane" means (and explaining, for example, why Harvey does not qualify), Eric Berger and Matt Lanza do some statistical analysis:

Since 1895, the data (plus 2021) suggests Houston has seen snow in 23 percent of all winters, hurricane or no hurricane. Based on the hurricane data, seven out of 30 winters following a hurricane hit since 1895 have seen snow, placing our odds at—wait for it—23 percent. The takeaway? It’s fun to say that Houston sees snow in winters following a hurricane. The statistics say that is false, and the odds of snow in a post-hurricane winter are perfectly identical to the odds of snow in any other winter.

The belief that a hurricane hitting Houston in the summer causes a snowfall the following winter is an example of illusory correlation; i.e. the perception of a relationship between two variables that in fact have none. While this particular one may have brought comfort to Houstonians - "the hurricane was horrible, but at least this means we'll get snow this winter" - it is nevertheless an illusion.


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Houston 40, Tulane 22

The Cougars jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first half, but Tulane then began to rally while the UH offense sputtered and the Coogs' lead was cut to two at the half. After the Cougars started the second half with a four-and-out, the Green Wave scored again to take the lead, 22-17, less than two minutes into the third quarter. 

This could have been the point of no return - the back-breaking moment where the momentum swings decisively in Tulane's favor and where the Cougars meekly fade down the stretch. In previous seasons, this probably would have been the case. But not this time. Later in the third quarter, Houston forced a Tulane fumble and then went on a 23-0 run to win comfortably.

It's that kind of mental resilience that gives me hope that the program is indeed improving. 

The Good: Clayton Tune threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns, while the Cougars rushed for 147 yards and two more scores. The offense did not turn the ball over. The Cougar defense sacked Green Wave QB Michael Pratt a whopping eight times; one of those sacks resulted in the fumble recovered by D'Anthony Jones which marked the point at which the game began to swing back into Houston's favor. 

The Bad: Between their second touchdown at the end of the first quarter, and their field goal (following Jones's fumble recovery) midway through the third quarter, Houston's offensive possessions looked like this: punt (3 plays, 3 yards), punt (3 plays, 8 yards), field goal (7 plays, 20 yards), punt (5 plays, 7 yards; Tune sacked twice), turnover on downs (4 plays, 9 yards), punt (3 plays, 5 yards). While the UH offense got stuck, Tulane scored three touchdowns. These prolonged offensive lapses have become a hallmark of UH football under Dana Holgorsen and he needs to address them.

What It Means: the Cougars have won five in a row, including back-to-back games on the road, and have won at Yulman Stadium for the first time since 2015.

Houston now gets a well-deserved week off before hosting East Carolina on October 23.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Houston 45, Tulsa 10

The Cougars went to Tulsa last Friday as 3.5 point underdogs. They came back with a dominating win.

The Good: Houston's offense. Freshman RB Alton McCaskill rushed for 77 yards and three touchdowns. QB Clayton Tune completed 17 of 24 passes for 241 yards and 2 touchdowns. He only threw one interception and did not get sacked. The Cougars jumped out to a 28-3 halftme lead and racked up a total of 405 yards of offense.

The Better: Houston's defense. Gervarrius Owens essentially sealed the win for the Coogs with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown right after halftime. This was one of three turnovers forced by the UH defense; they also sacked Tulsa QB Davis Brin four times. 

Tulsa could not run the ball against Houston. They ended the game with 28 rushing yards - with 27 of those coming on their last drive of the game!

The Bad: The Cougars committed way too many penalties: they were flagged 11 times for 90 yards. UH PK Dalton Witherspoon missed another field goal, making him 3 of 7 on field goal attempts this season.

What It Means: The Cougars have now won four games in a row as they approach the halfway point of the season.

Next for UH is the second half of their two-game roadtrip, tomorrow night at Tulane.

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, jalapeño, 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 jalapeños). 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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Our region just keeps getting bigger

A few weeks ago, the US Census Bureau released a trove of data from the 2020 Census. This data will largely be used for congressional gerrymandering redistricting, but it's also an all-important first look at the 2020 Census at the county and local level.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council has processed this data for the thirteen-county region encompassing the Houston metropolitan area (a summary presentation is here). I've gleaned through some of the data to provide some top-level information. The bottom line: we're growing. Especially in the suburbs. We're also becoming more diverse.

As of 2020, the 13-county region contained 7.3 million people, which is about the same population as the nations of Paraguay or Laos. This is an addition of over 1.2 million people over the last decade, which represents an almost a 20% growth rate. Here's the breakdown by county:

County 2020 Census 2010 Census Growth and Rate
Harris   4,731,145   4,092,459 638,686  15.6%
Fort Bend     822,779     585,375 237,404  40.6%
Montgomery     620,443     455,746 164,697  36.1%
Brazoria     372,031     313,166   58,865  18.8%
Galveston     350,682     291,309   59,373  20.4%
Liberty      91,628      75,643   15,985  21.1%
Walker      76,400      67,861    8,539  12.6%
Waller      56,794      43,205   13,589  31.5%
Chambers      46,571      35,096   11,475  32.7%
Wharton      41,570      41,280      290   0.7%
Matagorda      36,255      36,702     -447  -1.2%
Austin      30,167      28,417    1,750   6.2%
Colorado      20,557      20,874     -317  -1.5%
13 County Total   7,297,022   6,087,133    1,209,889  19.9%

Harris County, where Houston is located, saw the most growth in absolute terms, adding almost 639 thousand people over the 2010s. Fort Bend County saw the largest growth in percentage terms at 40.6%, closely followed by Montgomery County with 36.1% growth. Brazoria and Galveston Counties experienced growth that was a bit more modest but still substantial, gaining almost 60 thousand residents apiece. On the other end of the spectrum, rural Matagorda and Colorado Counties lost population, while Wharton County stagnated.

This map shows the general pattern of population change in the region over the last decade. Red and orange squares gained the most residents, while blue squares experienced less growth or even population loss:

                                                                                                                                               Houston-Galveston Area Council

It should come as no surprise that the region's growth is occurring largely in the suburbs; although it's hard to see highways on the above map, fully half of the region's growth occurred in the area between Beltway 8 and the Grand Parkway. Only 4% of the growth occurred inside Loop 610.  

H-GAC also breaks the data down by cities and places. Here is a table of cities or places with a population of at least 25,000 in 2020:

Municipality or CDP   2020 Census   2010 Census   Growth and Rate   County 

 1. Houston             2,304,580     2,099,451     205,129  9.8%   Harris 
 2. Pasadena              151,950       149,043       2,907  2.0%   Harris 
 3. Pearland              125,828        91,252      34,576 37.9%   Brazoria 
 4. The Woodlands Twnshp  114,436        93,847      20,589 21.9%   Montgomery 
 5. League City           114,392        83,560      30,832 36.9%   Galveston 
 6. Sugar Land            111,026        78,817      32,209 40.9%   Fort Bend 
 7. Conroe                 89,956        56,207      33,749 60.0%   Montgomery 
 8. Atascocita CDP         88,174        65,844      22,330 33.9%   Harris 
 9. Baytown                83,701        71,802      11,899 16.6%   Harris 
10. Missouri City          74,259        67,358       6,901 10.2%   Fort Bend 
11. Spring CDP             62,559        54,298       8,261 15.2%   Harris
12. Galveston              53,695        47,743       5,952 12.5%   Galveston 
13. Texas City             51,898        45,099       6,799 15.1%   Galveston 
14. Huntsville             45,941        38,548       7,393 19.2%   Walker 
15. Channelview CDP        45,688        38,289       7,399 19.3%   Harris 
16. Friendswood            41,213        35,805       5,408 15.1%   Galveston 
17. Rosenberg              38,282        30,618       7,664 25.0%   Fort Bend 
18. Mission Bend CDP       36,914        36,501         413  1.1%   Harris/Fort Bend 
19. La Porte               35,124        33,800       1,324  3.9%   Harris 
20. Deer Park              34,495        32,010       2,485  7.8%   Harris 
21. Lake Jackson           28,177        26,849       1,328  4.9%   Brazoria 
22. Alvin                  27,098        24,236       2,862 11.8%   Brazoria

A "CDP", or "Census-Designated Place, is an unincorporated community (while The Woodlands is a semi-incorporated "Township"). Houston is still the nation's fourth-largest municipality; it did gain on Chicago over the past ten years but there's still a ways to go before Space City overtakes the Windy City. 

Once again, the gains of suburban communities are evident. In 2010, Pasadena was the only city in the region (other than Houston) to contain over one hundred thousand residents. In the ten years since, it’s been joined by Pearland, The Woodlands, League City and Sugar Land. All four of these communities are located just outside of Harris County. 

The large growth rates in Conroe and Sugar Land can be at least partially attributed to annexation, before the legislature essentially disallowed it. Sugar Land annexed New Territory over the last decade, while Conroe annexed communities in Lake Conroe and down towards The Woodlands. 

Galveston’s population, which fell below 50,000 in 2010 due to the effects of Hurricane Ike, has made something of a recovery. Atascocita and Spring are the region's largest unincorporated communities (again: suburban communities between the Beltway and the Grand Parkway).

Finally, the region is growing more diverse: 

                                                                                                                       Houston-Galveston Area Council

As was the case in 2010, no one ethnic group constitutes a majority population within the region, although between 2010 and 2020 the Hispanic population surpassed the White population as the region's largest ethnic group. The region's Asian population grew by almost two percentage points, while the region's Black population percentage remained about the same.  The percentage of residents considering themselves of Other ethnicity (including mixed races) doubled. 

Put another way, between 2010 and 2020 the region added almost 580 thousand Hispanic residents, almost 218 thousand Black residents, about 207.5 thousand Asian residents, almost 160 thousand residents of Mixed or Other ethnicities, and almost 60 thousand White residents. 

No single ethnicity accounts for more than 37.3 percent of the population today, down from 39.9% ten years ago. Fort Bend County is one of the most ethnically-diverse counties in the United States: it is 29.6% White, 24% Hispanic, 22% Asian, and 20% Black.

For more information about these 2020 Census numbers (including additional data and interactive maps) check out H-GAC's 2020 Census Redistricting Data Tool. A hat tip to H-GAC's Pramod Sambidi and his Socioeconomic Modeling group for processing this data so quickly.

(Obligatory "in the interests of full disclosure, I am an H-GAC employee" disclaimer here.)