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.

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