Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Houston 34, Rice 27

The Cougars went into their game against crosstown rival Rice as 17-point favorites. They struggled to pull out a seven-point win.

The Good: Cougar wideout Nathaniel "Tank" Dell had seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown, while RB Ta'Zhawn Henry carried 17 times for 112 rushing yards and a score. On defense, D'Anthony Jones had two sacks and two forced fumbles against Rice QB TJ McMahon, the second of which was scooped up and run into the endzone by defensive lineman Nelson Ceaser for a touchdown. Backup safety Thabo Mwaniki intercepted McMahon on Rice's following drive, which should have sealed the win as there were only about two minutes left in the game. However... 

The Bad: The Cougars failed to manage a first down (which would have allowed them to run out the clock) on their ensuing possession. They punted the ball back to the Owls, who were able to march down the field and almost score a game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left on the clock (and no time outs). Sound familiar?

The Ugly: The usual: horrible tackling, an oftentimes-sputtering offense, poor pass defense (Houston allowed McMahon to pass for 334 yards), and penalties (ten flags for for 110 yards). The Cougars are now the most-penalized team in FBS. 

Dana Holgorsen is frustrated with his team. If message boards and social media are any indication, Cougar fans are frustrated with Dana Holgorsen.

The Devastating: Houston's best defensive player, Derek Parish, suffered a torn bicep during the game and is out for the rest of the season. Given that linebacker Malik Robinson suffered a season-ending injury the week before, and linebacker Donovan Mutin, defensive back Gervarrius Owens and cornerback Art Green are all dealing with injuries that could keep them out of the next game, things are truly dire on the defensive side of the ball. 

What It Means: The Cougars retain possession of the Bayou Bucket, and end their out-of-conference slate with a 2-2 record. However, UH could very easily be 0-4 right now. This is not a good team, and injuries have made it worse.

The Coogs open conference play against Tulane at TDECU Stadium on Friday.

Andy Yanez, Ryan Monceaux and Chris Baldwin have more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Houston 30, Kansas 48

The Cougars jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and then let the Kansas Jayhawks outscore them 48-16 the rest of the way in what turned out to be a dud of a home opener at TDECU Stadium.

The Good: Cougar RB Ta'Zhawn Henry. He rushed 15 times for 56 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for another 107 yards and a score. RB Brandon Campbell broke off a 40-yard run for a touchdown as well.

The Bad: The gameday experience at TDECU. The lines to get into the stadium were slow. Concessions were understaffed and waits for food and drink were long. I realize that things were complicated by the rain and the 70-minute lighting delay that sent everybody under the concourse for cover, but it just didn't seem like gameday operations were adequately prepared for Saturday's game. Which is disappointing, considering they had two extra weeks into the season to get ready. 

Also, the stadium announcer's "third down in the third ward" cheer is just stupid. 

The Really Bad: The sputtering Cougar offense. Six out of Houston's 11 drives ended in a punt, a turnover (there were two), or a failed fourth-down conversion. QB Clayton Tune was sacked four times, and the offense attempted way too many ineffective running plays up the middle for little or no gain. The coaching staff's decision to settle for a field goal on the Coogs' longest drive of the day (late in the game, with the team down 18) was also a head scratcher. 

The Ugly: Houston's run defense was utterly clowned by Kansas QB Jalon Daniels, who rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 158 yards and three scores, and was not sacked or intercepted once. Three games into the season, and it's obvious that the Cougar defense has no answer for mobile quarterbacks.

The Really Ugly: Tackling (or lack thereof), players out of position, and penalties (10 flags for 73 yards). These problem areas indicate a lack focus and discipline on the part of the Coogs.

The Really, Really Ugly: A sideline altercation between WRs Sam Brown, Jr and Joseph Manjack IV made national headlines and epitomized the disarray that the team is currently experiencing.

What It Means: Three games into the season, and it's clear that the Cougars are simply not a good team. In fact, at this point I'm beginning to doubt that they'll even have winning season. 

I don't know if it's because they lost so much talent from last year's team, or because everybody brought into their offseason press, or because there's serious discord in the locker room, or because Dana Holgorsen is spending too much time at the bar and too little time preparing for games. What I do know is that right now this program is a dumpster fire. What I also know is that many of the 30,317 who showed up to watch the game last Saturday are not going to make another trip to TDECU anytime soon.

Kansas is now 4-0 all-time against Houston. Up next for the Cougars is crosstown rival Rice.

Ryan takes stock of some of UH's numbers through the first quarter of the season (they aren't pretty). Dana Holgorsen takes the blame for not having his team "ready to go," while defensive lineman D'Anthony Jones apologizes for letting the fans down. Chris Baldwin notes how the loss has killed excitement for UH football.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

#25 Houston 30, Texas Tech 33

For the second week in a row, a Cougar road game came down to overtime. This time, however, the outcome was not as favorable for UH.

The Good: For the second week in a row, the Cougars battled back from a 14-point halftime deficit and led the game with less than a minute to play. Derek Parrish was a beast on the Houston defense: he forced a fumble, racked up 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss - both American Athletic Conference records - and earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors. When he wasn't being sacked by Parish, Red Raider QB Donavan Smith was throwing interceptions: three of them, including one returned 54 yards for a UH touchdown by Jayce Rogers.

The Bad: For the second week in a row, the Cougars were sloppy and undisciplined. Poor tackling, dumb penalties (Houston was flagged 11 times for 121 yards), dropped passes, a pair of turnovers, poor offensive execution, a missed field goal because Tune took a sack that put the Coogs out of Baxa's range)... Hologrsen said it himself after the game: "We didn’t play well enough to win. Just a whole lot of stupid stuff. Stupid, stupid, stupid, undisciplined stuff."

Well coach, you're being paid $4 million a year to fix it. I know back to back games on the road are tough, but eliminate just a few of those mistakes and the Cougars could have left Lubbock with a win. For example:

The Ugly: For the second week in a row, a brilliant Tank Dell punt return for a TD with a stupid penalty. For the second week in a row, the Cougars allowed the opposing team to tie the game with less than a minute on the clock. 

But worst of all? The UH defense allowed Texas Tech to convert 4th and 20 in the first overtime. 

That's right. 4th and 20.

In the second overtime, Smith would run virtually untouched into the endzone to secure the Texas Tech victory. 

What It Means: The loss knocked the Cougars out of the top 25, where they probably didn't belong to begin with. The Cougars have now lost 10 out of the last 11 games against once-and-future conference mate Texas Tech; the last time they beat the Red Raiders in Lubbock was 1990.

Next up for Houston is their first home game of the season, against a Kansas team that just beat West Virginia on the road in overtime. Uh-oh.

Andy Yanez and Chris Baldwin have more.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

#24 Houston 37, Texas-San Antonio 35 (3 OT)

The Cougars overcame a sluggish start in front of a raucous Alamodome crowd to rally from a 14-point deficit and kick what should have been the game-winning field goal with 23 seconds left in the game. Alas, the Roadrunners marched down the field to kick the tying field goal in the time remaining. Three agonizing overtime periods ensued before the Cougars were able to escape with a win. 

The Good: Early in the fourth quarter, Derek Parrish deflected a pass by UTSA QB Frank Harris that landed into the hands of Nelson Ceaser for an interception. One play later, Clayton Tune found Joseph Manjack IV in the endzone, who made an amazing one-handed catch to tie the game. In the third overtime, Tune somersaulted over a UTSA defender and into the endzone to score what would be the game-winning two-point conversion.

The Bad: For much of the game the Cougars just looked rough. Dropped passes. Poor tackling. Stupid penalties, including several jumps offsides, two kickoffs out of bounds, and a holding call that negated what would have been a Tank Dell punt return for a touchdown early in the game. Tune looked tentative at times, holding onto the ball too long, taking four sacks, and fumbling once. The offense sputtered, as four Houston possessions were three-and-outs. The UH defense, meanwhile, was frustrated by Harris all afternoon, as the Roadrunner signal-caller ended the game with 337 passing yards and three touchdowns as well as 63 rushing yards and a touchdown.

The Ugly: UTSA was able to march down the field to kick the game into overtime with 23 seconds left on the clock and no time outs. That is inexcusable on the part of the Houston defense and suggests that the Cougars' secondary could be a real liability this season.

What It Means: Respect needs to be given to the Roadrunners. They were 12-2 and conference champions a year ago, they were playing in front of the fifth-largest crowd in UTSA program history (I was there; it was loud), they had a ten-game home winning streak going, and they had that game circled as a statement win. That the Cougars were able to grit it out in spite of all the mistakes they made and win in a grueling three overtimes is a testament to this team's character. There's a lot of work that the Cougars need to do, but don't let the final score or three overtimes take away from a hard-fought, quality road win for Houston.

Next up for the Coogs (who dropped one spot in the AP poll) is a trip to Lubbock to take on former SWC and future Big XII rival Texas Tech.

Chris Baldwin shares his thoughts on what he calls an "epic game", while Brad Towns breaks down the "kill shot" that was Tune's pass to Manjack after the interception. 

Austin skyscraper to be tallest building in Texas

Houston has claimed possession Texas's tallest building for the past forty years. Looks like that's about to change:

Since its completion in 1982, the 75-story JPMorgan Chase Tower on Travis Street in downtown Houston has stood as the tallest building in Texas—an honor that will soon be taken from the Bayou City thanks to a new skyscraper currently under construction in downtown Austin.

As first reported by the Austin American-Statesman's Shonda Novak, Lincoln Development Company and Kairoi Residential announced new details on Tuesday about its partnership on the project. The structure will be called Waterline, according to Novak, and will reach 1,022 feet in the sky by the time of its projected completion in late 2026—placing its peak a mere 20 feet higher than Chase Tower, which measures 1,002 feet.

Downtown Austin's skyline has certainly changed quite a bit since I lived there in the late 90s; as the city has grown, so has its number of tall buildings:

Waterline will join a menagerie of high-rises currently under construction in downtown Austin, which has seen a dramatic boom in population in recent years. According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the city's metro area saw a 33 percent population increase between January 2010 and July 2020. More than six percent of its population reported having lived somewhere other than Austin prior to 2019, the country's second-highest rate of recent transplants, per the Austin Chamber.

That growth, unfortunately, has also made Austin one of the least affordable cities for the middle class in the nation, and I doubt the high-end residences planned for this mixed-use tower (it will also have a hotel and office space) are going to make things any more affordable. But that's a topic for another day.

Houston's not likely to wrest back the distinction of being home to Texas' tallest tower. Construction of any building over 200 feet in Houston requires consultation from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has previously raised concerns with downtown building plans in excess of 75 stories, citing the importance of safeguarding air space for flights in and out of nearby William P. Hobby Airport. The Chase Tower, originally known as the Texas Commerce Tower, was initially intended to stand 80 stories tall before an FAA analysis prompted the City of Houston to ask for its design to be shaved down to 75 stories. The city has not approved any design exceeding this benchmark.

Downtown's proximity to the approach path to Hobby Airport is, in fact, one of the reasons why another tower planned for Houston in the early 1980s - a 1,400-foot, 82-story, Helmut Jahn-designed project that would have been the second tallest building in the United States at the time (see rendering here) - was never built, either. Of course, the oil bust had a role to play in its cancelation as well.

College Football Playoff Expansion

Last summer I wondered if the College Football Playoff might expand from its current four-team format. At the time, it seemed almost inevitable. Then, earlier this year, the brakes got pumped on the concept when the powers that control the sport couldn't come to a unanimous agreement about what an expanded playoff would look like. Last Friday, however, an agreement about playoff expansion was finally reached:

The College Football Playoff's board of managers unanimously voted Friday to expand the CFP to 12 teams in 2026 but is encouraging the sport's commissioners to try to implement it as soon as 2024.

In what was described as "an historic day for college football," the board's 11 presidents and chancellors approved the original 12-team model, which was first made public last summer and includes the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams, the board announced.

That fact that the six highest-ranked conference champions will be included in the format guarantees that at least one team from the so-called "Group of Five" schools will participate in the playoff every season. Teams will continue to be ranked by the CFP selection committee, which itself probably needs reform, but at least under this model the greatest injustice of the the college football playoff - the exclusion of deserving Group of Five schools - is mitigated. 

The four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded one through four with each receiving a first-round bye. Teams seeded five through 12 will play each other in the first round on either the second or third weekend of December. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played in bowl games on a rotating basis, and the championship game will be at a neutral site, as under the current four-team format.

"This is an exciting day for the future of college football," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. "As originally proposed, the 12-team playoff creates more access for teams and conferences across the country to compete in college football's championship event. There is work to be done to make this format a reality, but I am pleased we are all moving in the same direction with a common purpose."

While there are still details to be worked out (and discussions on potentially implementing the format as early as 2024 are set to begin this week), playoff expansion will be good for the sport. It will make the playoff more interesting by virtue of the fact that three times as many teams are participating, and it will hopefully reduce the trend of NFL-bound players "opting out" of inconsequential bowl games as well. Of course, it will also produce a lot of new revenue for the sport.

Granted, most of that revenue is going to be hoovered up by the Power Five conferences; in fact, Power Five schools (and Notre Dame if it is ranked high enough) are likely to occupy 11 of the 12 postseason berths during most seasons. The dominance of programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State is unlikely to abate, either. But the fact that at least one Group of Five school will have a seat at the postseason table means that any school playing FBS football will now - at least in theory - have a shot at the national title. That makes the sport more equitable than it has been in the past, and reduces the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" of the sport.

As a fan of one of those schools that was on the "outside looking in" of the College Football Playoff (and its predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series) for so long, I'm glad we've finally reached this point (even if Houston will be a member of a Power Five conference by the time this expansion occurs). It honestly should have happened a long time ago.

The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast thinks playoff expansion will stabilize conference realignment and prevent conferences like the SEC and Big Ten from creating their own league. CFN's Pete Fiutak says expansion will be good for the sport, while ESPN staffers try to answer some lingering questions about expansion. SI's Ross Dellenger inventories the issues that still need to be resolved before expansion occurs.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

2022 Houston Cougar Football Preview

Before I go into the preview, I want to say a word about the summer's bombshell news about UCLA and USC joining the Big Ten in 2024. The fact that this move makes no geographic sense is beside the point; today, conference realignment is all about money (as evidenced by the Big Ten's new TV deal). 

This quest for ever-greater revenue streams has reached the point that the sport is cannibalizing itself:

Inequity has always existed in college athletics, particularly in football, the highest-profile sport. But this latest transfer of power widens the divide between the haves and have-nots. The Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) already stand apart as the two most lucrative leagues in college sports. They will continue their not-so-secret arms race. Eventually, the rest of the college conferences—even the once-mighty Pac-12—may either go extinct or just end up competing for scraps.

When Texas and Oklahoma, now with the Big 12, join the SEC in either 2024 or 2025, the SEC and the Big Ten will each have 16 universities. Nine of the 10 schools with the highest athletic revenue in the 2019–20 fiscal year will be members of either the SEC or the Big Ten. The two conferences include the most dominant brands in college football: Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia, to name a few.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about the lamentable trend towards an elite "superconference" of 64 schools that would break off from the rest of college football. Now, it looks like this superconference might only consist of the schools of the Big Ten and the SEC, plus a lucky few extras (e.g. Clemson, Notre Dame, etc.) that are eventually invited into the exclusive club.

Houston, of course, is one of four schools joining the Big 12 next season; it remains to be seen how USC and UCLA's move will affect the Big 12 in general or the Cougars in particular. There was initially some talk about a quartet of Pac-12 schools - Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah - leaving the now-crippled Pac-12 for the Big 12, but no movement has occurred as of yet. It's only a matter of time, however, before the next round of conference realignment begins (remember when I told everybody that they wouldn't have to wait very long for it?) 

Between this, NIL money, the transfer portal, and other recent changes, the sport of college football is definitely changing, and not in a direction I as a fan like to see it go. The sport is suffering from a lack of leadership: the NCAA has effectively been emasculated, and college football is now essentially controlled by TV networks, conference commissioners and university presidents who are more concerned with money grabs than they are the long-term greater good of the sport or its student-athletes. 

With that said, it's time to focus on the 2022 season at hand, and worry about the future of college football later.

Looking Back: after the Cougars' season-opening loss to Texas Tech at NRG Stadium, I was ready for head coach Dana Holgorsen to be fired. However, the $4 million coach redeemed himself from there, as his team rattled off eleven straight wins before falling to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Houston then went on to defeat Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl and end the season with a #17 final ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls.

The Big Story for 2022: this is Houston's final year in the American Athletic Conference. They'd like to go out with a conference title; furthermore, they'd like to enter the Big XII in 2023 with some swagger. Can the Coogs build on last season's success and generate momentum moving forward?

Reasons for Optimism: Quarterback Clayton Tune had a breakout season in 2021, and he and WR Nathaniel "Tank" Dell are probably the best pass-and-catch combo in the conference. In addition to Dell, Tune will have his choice of targets, including experienced tight end Christian Trahan and a slew of wide receiver transfers with experience from Power five schools. Ta'Zhawn Henry, who was the Coogs' second-leading rusher last season with 524 yards and seven touchdowns, will start at running back. 

Houston returns several starters from a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, including defensive linemen D’Anthony Jones and Derek Parish who combined for 12 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss last year. The linebacking corps is anchored by Donavan Mutin, who led the team with 77 tackles a year ago. Veteran cornerbacks Gervarrius Owens and Hasaan Hypolite return to lead the secondary. The defense's most important returnee, however, is Defensive Coordinator Doug Belk, whose success leading the Houston defense is causing his name to be mentioned as a future head coaching candidate.

There's also the schedule, which Ryan Monceaux calls "as soft as squeeze butter." The Coogs' opponents went a combined 64-84 last season, and Houston avoids Central Florida and Cincinnati for the second straight year.

Reasons for Pessimism: The Cougars have to replace a lot of talent from last year's team that has been lost to injury or the NFL draft. RB Alton McCaskill, who ran for almost 1,000 yards last season, suffered a torn ACL during offseason practice and is out for the season. On defense, the Cougars have to replace key players who are now playing on Sundays, including Logan Hall and David Anenih on the defensive line, and Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams in the secondary. Jones, of course, was also a game changer for the Cougars as kick returner. 

An offensive line that wasn't all that great last season - they allowed 38 sacks - has to replace three starters as well. 

While these losses bother Brad Towns, his biggest concern is that the schedule, while weak, is still stronger than last year's (which is something I noted as well):

As bad as this year’s schedule is, and it’s plenty bad, last season was even worse. UH trades Grambling for UTSA, Tech on the road vs. in Houston, and Kansas for UConn. Kansas is not good, but they aren’t UConn bad. And that leads me to my biggest concern.

Despite the lousy schedule, several games in 2021 were way too close for comfort. There was an 8-point home win over 4-8 Navy, when UH didn’t take the go-ahead lead in the 4th qtr. A two-win Tulane team was within 4 points going into the 4th quarter before UH pulled away. It took overtime to beat ECU at home. UH needed a walk-off kick return to beat SMU at home. USF, a two-win team, cut UH’s lead to five with 4 minutes to go. Memphis was within a score in the 4th qtr at TDECU Stadium before UH sealed the win with less than 4 minutes to go.

Navy, ECU, SMU, and Memphis are on the road this year (along with Texas Tech and UTSA). None of those teams are great, and I expect the Coogs to beat them all. But funny things can happen on the road.

While Brad still expects a 10-2 season, he "wouldn’t be shocked if the outcome was 8-4 and a Whocares Bowl appearance."

What the Computers Think: Congrove's preseason algorithm predicts an 11-1 season for the Cougars, Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning ten games, and ESPN's FPI gives the Coogs a 50% or greater chance to win nine games. When the home-field advantage is taken into account, Sagarin's preseason ratings imply an undefeated season for UH.

What the Humans Think: Houston is ranked #24 in both the preseason AP and Coaches polls. The Cougars were also picked to be conference champions in the AAC preseason media poll, just edging out Cincinnati (who actually received more first-place votes). Athlon, who ranks Houston in their top 25, opines that the "Cougars aren't done" building on last season's success and, given their manageable schedule, "could challenge for the AAC title and New Year’s Six bowl." ESPN puts Houston 24th in its preseason power rankings, while CBS Sports puts Houston 22nd in its beginning-of-season poll (four out of seven CBS Sports writers also predict the Cougars to win the conference). College Football News foresees a ten-win regular season for Houston (read their full preview), while fansided's John Buhler predicts a 12-0 regular season, an AAC conference championship and a Cotton Bowl appearance for UH. 

What I think: While I think the Cougars are poised to have a good season, I fear that there might be a bit of a step back in 2022. The schedule, while still easy, is incrementally harder than last year, and the team has to replace some key talent from last year's team (Marcus Jones, of course, is irreplaceable). The injury to Alton McCaskill is a huge setback, and I'm still worried about the offensive line. 

While an undefeated, conference championship-winning season is certainly possible, it is more likely that the Cougars experience a few road bumps along the way, as up-and-comers and transfers grow into their roles and as opposing AAC programs give the exiting Coogs their last, best shot. 

I am predicting a 9-3 record, with losses coming against any three of Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech, Memphis or SMU on the road. That record probably won't be good enough for a conference title, but a bowl win on that gets them to ten wins and puts them on respectable footing going into the Big XII.