Friday, September 01, 2023

2023 Houston Cougar Football Preview

The 2023 college football season begins in the shadow of ongoing conference realignment madness. Just today it was confirmed that Stanford, Cal and SMU will be joining the ACC next season. So yes, next year there will be California schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It doesn't make much sense, but that's where the sport is today, for better or for worse.

The churn of conference realignment means that the Cougars will be playing in a new home this season: the Big 12. It's a step upward for the program, but it will probably come with some growing pains.

Looking Back: A season that began with promise (the Cougars began the season in the top 25) ended in mediocrity, with a 7-5 record (two games worse than my prediction of a nine-win regular season) and a victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in the Independence Bowl. 

While I'll take the winning season and bowl trophy, the 2022 campaign was nevertheless a disappointment. The defense struggled (the Cougars ended the season 104th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense and 111th in scoring defense), the offense was plagued with sluggish starts (the Coogs were held scoreless in the first quarter 7 times in 13 games), and the team as a whole was undisciplined (124th in penalty yards per game). 

The Big Story for 2023: The Cougars have spent the better part of three decades wandering in the wilderness since the Southwest Conference broke up in 1995. Now, they rejoin the premier ranks of college football as a member of a (now) "Power Four" conference. Gone are conference mates with little regional appeal like Temple, East Carolina and Tulsa. In their stead are old SWC foes such as Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and (for one season, at least) Texas, an even older Missouri Valley Conference foe in Oklahoma State, and interesting new opponents like West Virginia and Kansas State.

With this step up in prestige comes a step up in competition, and the Cougars need to prove that they belong. 

Reasons for Optimism: There's been a lot of roster turnover but there's definitely some talent on this team. Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith will take over as quarterback; he is already well-known to UH fans since he converted a 4th-and-20 against the Cougars last season. He'll have a strong wide receiving corps to work with, as Matthew Golden (38 catches for 584 yards and 7 TDs a year ago) and Joseph Manchack return; they will be joined by a couple of transfers. Stacy Sneed and Brandon Campbell, who combined for almost 1000 rushing yards last season, return in the backfield and are joined by West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis, Jr. The offensive line returns NFL-caliber talent in OT Patrick Paul, as well as a new coach in Eman Naghavi, who spent last season at Tulane.

The defensive line is going to be formidable. DE Nelson Ceaser may be best defensive player on the team; he'll be joined by DE David Ugwoegbu and DT Chidozie Nwankwo. Linebackers will be anchored by senior leader Hasaan Hypolite (31 tackles at safety last year) and Jamal Morris (42 tackles). Alex Hogan returns at DB.

There's also a bit of an advantage in the schedule, as Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice.

Reasons for Pessimism: Where to begin? To start with, the schedule is much tougher than anything the Cougars have faced in recent memory. With an upgrade in conferences comes an upgrade in opponents; three of Houston's opponents are ranked in the preseason AP poll (and four in the coaches' poll).

There's also that issue of roster turnover. Major contributors to last year's team are gone: QB Clayton Tune, WR Tank Dell (who led the nation in receiving yards and receiving TDs last season), LB Donavan Mutin and DL Derek Parish have all moved on to the NFL, while RB Alton McCaskill, who sat out the 2022 season with an injury but was expected to return as the team's offensive workhorse this season, transferred to Colorado. There are over 40 new players on the roster this season, and it's going to take time for them to gel.

Finally, there's head coach Dana Holgorsen, whose performance up to this point has been underwhelming. Yeah, there was that 12-2 season two years ago against a butter-soft schedule, but last year his team underachieved. Why should he be expected to do better this season against better competition?

What the Computers Think: Massey gives the Cougars a greater than 50% chance of winning only three games. Jeff Sagarin's starting ratings for the 2023 season imply a 5-7 record for the Cougars with home field advantage taken into account (and three of those wins are marginal). ESPN's Football Power Index, likewise, foresees a 5-7 season for the Coogs. Congrove is a bit more bullish on Houston, predicting a 7-5 campaign.

What the Humans Think: Houston was picked to finish 12th (out of 14 teams) in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, ahead of only Cincinnati and West Virginia. USA Today's Erick Smith has the Cougars finishing 13th in the conference, while the writers at CBS Sports see the Coogs finishing anywhere from 9th to 14th. CollegeFootballNews foresees a 5-7 season record for Houston.

What I Think: While I'm happy that the Cougars finally find themselves among the "haves" of the college football world and look forward to new and rekindled rivalries in the Big 12, I just don't think that their first season among the big boys will be a particularly good one: the Cougars need to pay their dues.

I'm am predicting a 4-8 season record for the Cougars, with wins against UTSA, Rice and Sam Houston, and a single conference win over Holgorsen's former employer, West Virginia, on a nationally-televised Thursday night. But even then I'm not all that confident about those games; quite frankly. there isn't a game on the schedule that the Cougars can't lose. 

Dana Holgorsen and his players know that expectations for the program are low, and they relish being the underdog. Which is great. But after watching his overall underperformance during his four years at Houston, I'm skeptical of his ability to get these players to reach their potential. This fall would be as good a time as any to prove me wrong.

Houston begins the season tomorrow at home against Texas-San Antonio. Vegas actually has the Roadrunners slightly favored in this one, and we all remember what happened the last time UTSA came to TDECU Stadium.

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