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I've probably written it a thousand times by now: No matter how well-researched and logical you are in your decision-making process, changing coaches is a complete and total crapshoot. Sometimes a good-looking choice is done in by a few injuries and a scorned booster. Sometimes a hire that ignited disapproving fans ends up maneuvering through a wonderful tenure.
Sometimes a new hire gets off on the wrong foot and never recovers. When Southern Miss upset Houston in the 2011 Conference USA title game, the matchup pitted two schools that would both soon be looking for a new head coach. It's a tenet of mid-major life: The better a hire you make, the sooner you'll be making another one. Southern Miss lost Larry Fedora to North Carolina, while Houston's Kevin Sumlin went down the road to Texas A&M.
The two schools took completely different paths to finding a replacement -- Southern Miss went after the wise old career assistant (South Carolina's Ellis Johnson), and Houston went with Sumlin's receivers/tight ends/special teams coach, Tony Levine. Southern Miss started off terribly and never recovered, plummeting, incredibly, from 12-2 to 0-12.
Houston, meanwhile, had its own issues. The Cougars lost their first game of 2012 to FBS newcomer Texas State (and they didn't just lose, they lost by 17 at home) and in about the clearest possible sign of instability, Levine fired his offensive coordinator the next week. The offense was up and down thereafter, and three weeks into the season, Houston was 0-3, having just lost by 31 points at UCLA. As with Ellis Johnson's tenure, it looked like the Levine era could come to a quick, quiet ending. But to their credit, his Cougars rallied. Despite key injuries and absurd youth, Houston won five of its last nine games, with a three-point loss at Marshall keeping the Cougars from surging for a bowl bid.
Perhaps as importantly, Levine kept recruiting. Like Kyle Flood at Houston's new conference-mate Rutgers, Levine was known as a pretty good recruiter when he was promoted, and he's proven it. He has increased the number of former high-three-star recruits on the roster, and he is welcoming some interesting transfers, like former Oklahoma State defensive tackle Mike Mustafa and former USC blue-chip receiver Markeith Ambles (well, if Ambles can get his grades situation cleared up, anyway). While the storm has not completely subsided -- star running back Charles Sims, easily the best, most explosive skill position player on the roster, transferred to West Virginia in the offseason -- Levine enters year two with a talented and infinitely more experienced two-deep, one that takes on a schedule full of potential or probable wins.
Levine has weathered some seriously choppy waters thus far, and while he's not yet to shore, his journey is starting to look a lot more pleasant than it was about 11 months ago.
2. So, so many sophomores
Houston was nothing if not volatile in 2012, alternating between impressive and awful performances. The Cougars looked like they were at a 2011 level in beating Rice, North Texas and UAB, then turned the ball over an incredible nine times in losing by 30 to a scuffling SMU squad. (Cougar quarterbacks threw six touchdown passes in that game: three to each team.) The offense looked solid against one team and non-existent the next. The offense was excellent one week, distinctly below average the next.
Instability clouded the Cougars' season, but … of course it did. Just look at the number of sophomores below. Look at the playing time they received. The two leading returning rushers are sophomores Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. The leading returning receiver is sophomore Deontay Greenberry. Sophomore Trevon Stewart was forced to be the anchor in the secondary last year. And where sophomores aren't found, juniors are. This was a brutally young team last year, one that was too young and too mistake-prone to succeed to any degree.
The thing about sophomores, though, is that they become juniors. And then they become seniors. Early pain often results in prowess. At least, that's what Houston hopes.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 80|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Texas State||13-30||L||14.4 - 26.6||L|
|8-Sep||Louisiana Tech||49-56||L||25.9 - 26.4||L|
|15-Sep||at UCLA||6-37||L||16.2 - 28.5||L|
|29-Sep||vs. Rice||35-14||W||34.9 - 20.0||W|
|6-Oct||North Texas||44-21||W||41.8 - 30.9||W|
|13-Oct||UAB||39-17||W||28.2 - 24.2||W|
|18-Oct||at SMU||42-72||L||29.9 - 34.1||L|
|27-Oct||UTEP||45-35||W||22.9 - 32.3||L|
|3-Nov||at East Carolina||28-48||L||22.8 - 28.7||L|
|10-Nov||Tulsa||7-41||L||16.1 - 28.2||L|
|17-Nov||at Marshall||41-44||L||24.6 - 29.0||L|
|24-Nov||Tulane||40-17||W||27.8 - 25.0||W|
|Points Per Game||32.4||38||36.0||109|
|Adj. Points Per Game||25.5||89||27.8||62|
3. Average is boring
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Opponent 27.2, Houston 18.8 (minus-8.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Houston 33.7, Opponent 27.3 (plus-6.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 5 games): Opponent 28.6, Houston 22.9 (minus-5.7)
Give Houston credit for one thing: The Cougars were never average. They were more than a touchdown worse than average early, rallied to a distinctly above-average level in early October, then firmly established themselves back on the other side of the grid. For the season, Houston's adjusted scoring margin was a couple of points below average, but in only two games did the Cougars play that close to average. Most of the time they were either well above or well below.
|Q1 Rk||98||1st Down Rk||108|
|Q2 Rk||108||2nd Down Rk||98|
|Q3 Rk||70||3rd Down Rk||65|
4. Give a coach, take a coach
In 2010, following two seasons as Houston's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Dana Holgorsen left Houston to become Mike Gundy's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Apparently it was a trade, however; three years later, the CTBNL (Coach To Be Named Later) in the deal was finally named. Doug Meachem, Gundy's former tight ends and inside receivers coach, is now Houston's offensive coordinator. Meachem was part of the Gundy era from the beginning in 2005, helping to establish one of the country's best plug-and-play offenses, one that finds brutal efficiency and exhausting pace no matter what personnel comes and goes in a given season.
Meachem's first goal in 2013 has to be teaching Houston how not to be its own worst enemy. The Cougars threw 20 interceptions in 2012 (and it only felt like they all came against SMU) and somehow lost 15 of 19 fumbles. Ninety-six Houston passes were defensed in some manner, meaning Houston quarterbacks were frequently throwing to rather well-covered receivers. And with points on the line, the Cougars routinely faltered, ranking 105th in Redzone S&P+ and 100th in points per trip inside the opponent's 20. Offense basically comes down to creating opportunities and converting them. When Houston managed to not stumble in the former, it stumbled in the latter.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|David Piland||6'3, 196||Jr.||*** (5.6)||256||448||2,929||57.1%||16||12||11||2.4%||6.2|
|Bram Kohlhausen||6'1, 203||So.||*** (5.6)||4||9||31||44.4%||0||2||0||0.0%||3.4|
|Billy Cosh||6'1, 202||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|John O'Korn||6'4, 205||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. The real David Piland
In his first three games of the season, David Piland completed 54 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
In his next three games, he completed 68 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
In his next four games, he completed 47 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Piland was long considered star quarterback Case Keenum's heir apparent, but it's difficult to get past the fact that the Cougars are 6-12 in his 18 starts. He held his own relatively well for a freshman in 2010 when Keenum went down (he actually beat out fellow freshman Terrance Broadway for playing time; Broadway transferred and put up huge numbers at UL-Lafayette last season), then redshirted in 2011, Keenum's senior year, to assure a three-year starting reign. But he was terribly up-and-down last fall thanks to an uncertain combination of inconsistency and injury (he missed time with both a concussion and a leg injury), and when he missed most of the last two games of the year with injury, his backup (Crawford Jones) actually outplayed him a bit.
Jones is gone, and Piland appears to have held off sophomore Bram Kohlhausen, former Kansas State Wildcat Billy Cosh, and highly touted true freshman John O'Korn to win the starting job to start the season. But O'Korn played well enough to secure the backup role, and if Piland starts the 2013 season as he finished his 2012 campaign, one has to figure Levine might start to lean toward the young guy.
|Kenneth Farrow||RB||5'11, 216||So.||*** (5.5)||86||466||5.4||4.9||2||+2.3|
|Ryan Jackson||RB||5'10, 183||So.||*** (5.5)||59||252||4.3||5.6||3||-5.6|
|David Piland||QB||6'3, 196||Jr.||*** (5.6)||34||275||8.1||8.8||2||+9.8|
|Kent Brooks||RB||5'11, 206||Sr.||*** (5.5)|
|Joseph Glenn||RB||5'9, 219||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Deontay Greenberry||WR-X||6'3, 198||So.||**** (6.0)||86||47||574||54.7%||6.7||15.5%||64.0%||6.8||55.3|
|Daniel Spencer||WR-H||5'11, 195||Jr.||*** (5.6)||74||41||579||55.4%||7.8||13.4%||68.9%||8.2||55.8|
|Larry McDuffey||WR-H||5'10, 162||So.||** (5.3)||45||28||382||62.2%||8.5||8.1%||62.2%||8.4||36.8|
|Shane Ros||WR||5'10, 200||Sr.||** (5.4)||37||23||337||62.2%||9.1||6.7%||56.8%||9.2||32.5|
|Xavier Maxwell||WR-Z||6'1, 180||Sr.||*** (5.5)||28||10||156||35.7%||5.6||5.1%||50.0%||6.0||15.0|
|Kenneth Farrow||RB||5'11, 216||So.||*** (5.5)||25||20||155||80.0%||6.2||4.5%||68.0%||6.3||14.9|
|Ryan Jackson||RB||5'10, 183||So.||*** (5.5)||16||13||102||81.3%||6.4||2.9%||56.3%||6.4||9.8|
|Andrew Rodriguez||WR||5'10, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.5)||6||5||82||83.3%||13.7||1.1%||50.0%||13.0||7.9|
|Markeith Ambles||WR||6'2, 190||Jr.||***** (6.1)|
|D'Juan Hines||WR-Y||6'2, 203||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Chauntez Jackson||TE||6'4, 254||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Demarcus Ayers||WR||5'10, 173||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Donald Gage||WR||5'11, 175||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
6. Sophomores and high ceilings
Piland's supporting cast at the skill positions is both young and loaded with interesting potential. Deontay Greenberry, the No. 49 recruit in the class of 2012 according to Rivals.com, was the jewel of Levine's first recruiting class and held his own as a true freshman and No. 2 receiver; his per-target numbers were mediocre at best, but a) for most, the freshman year is just about survival, and b) he had his moments: six catches for 94 amid the SMU interception-fest, three catches for 97 yards in the season finale versus Tulane. Three of last year's top five targets are gone, but understudies like Larry McDuffey (also a sophomore) and Shane Ros (the rare senior) put up impressive numbers in backup roles. And if Markeith Ambles ever makes it to campus (any…day…now…), that will give Houston two former blue-chippers in the receiving corps. No other AAC school can say that.
Meanwhile, the ceilings appear high for both sophomore running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. Farrow was actually rather consistent for a freshman, while Jackson was less consistent and more explosive. Converted defensive back Kent Brooks joined the mix this offseason, too, and all three will be running behind one of the most experienced lines in the country. It returns six players with starting experience (92 career starts, including 58 from four seniors, though two-year starting guard Ty Cloud has been hobbled and inactive in fall camp).
It might take another year for all of these pieces to peak, but if/when they do, the offense could improve dramatically in a short amount of time.
|Jacolby Ashworth||RG||39 career starts; 2012 1st All-CUSA|
|Rowdy Harper||LT||6'6, 295||Jr.||** (5.2)||26 career starts|
|Ty Cloud||LG||6'4, 314||Sr.||*** (5.5)||26 career starts|
|Kevin Forsch||RG||6'3, 307||Sr.||** (5.3)||19 career starts|
|Ralph Oragwu||RT||6'3, 324||Sr.||** (5.3)||10 career starts|
|Bryce Redman||C||6'1, 285||Jr.||** (5.4)||8 career starts|
|DeAnthony Sims||LG||6'3, 320||Sr.||*** (5.5)||3 career starts|
|Austin Lunsford||C||6'1, 278||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Emeka Okafor||RG||6'5, 322||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Zach Johnson||RT||6'6, 301||So.||** (5.4)|
|Alex Cooper||LT||6'4, 285||So.||** (5.2)|
|Mac Long||OL||6'3, 291||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Damien Parris||OL||6'5, 310||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Josh Thomas||OL||6'5, 335||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Ja'Braylin Thomas||OL||6'5, 358||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Q1 Rk||45||1st Down Rk||48|
|Q2 Rk||67||2nd Down Rk||87|
|Q3 Rk||60||3rd Down Rk||86|
7. Pace vs. numbers
Without digging into pace- and opponent adjustments, you could get a far less than precise view of Houston's strengths and weaknesses. The Cougars, one of the original tempo-pushers, averaged 82 plays per game last year, one of the nation's higher totals. Because of both that and the Cougars' conference of residence (Conference USA was a mighty up-tempo league in 2012), opponents ran even MORE plays (86 per game). As a result, Houston ranked 15th in yards per game and 118th in yards allowed per game.
It's easy to assume, then, the defense was the problem. But that just wasn't the case. Taking into account both pace and opponent, Houston's offense ranked 83rd in Off. F/+; its defense ranked a decent (though obviously not spectacular) 66th in Def. F/+. The defense was better than the offense, especially when you consider that when a bad offense is moving quickly, that often simply means it's failing quickly and hanging its defense out to dry. Houston's D ranked 45th in first-quarter S&P+ and 103rd in fourth-quarter S&P+. Injuries (and the consequent lack of depth) and shuffling played a role in that, but so did a failing offense.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Joey Mbu||DT||6'3, 312||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||17.0||2.1%||1.5||1||1||1||0||0|
|Eric Braswell||DE||6'5, 268||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||10.5||1.3%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Tomme Mark||DT||6'3, 288||So.||*** (5.6)||10||8.0||1.0%||0.5||0||0||1||0||1|
|Eric Eiland||DE||6'2, 236||So.||** (5.4)||9||5.5||0.7%||1||1||1||0||1||1|
|Jeremiah Farley||DT||6'0, 283||Jr.||** (5.4)||5||4.0||0.5%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|William Moore||DE||6'2, 233||Jr.||** (5.3)||9||3.0||0.4%||1.5||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Josh McNeill||DT||6'5, 307||Sr.||** (5.4)|
|Mike Mustafa||DT||6'3, 277||So.||** (5.2)|
|B.J. Singleton||DT||6'4, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Cameron Malveaux||DE||6'6, 252||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Trevor Harris||DE||6'5, 233||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Tyus Bowser||DE||6'3, 226||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Chauntez Jackson||DE||6'4, 254||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
8. On the bright side, a lot of linemen got PT last year
Ten Houston linemen and nine defensive backs logged at least 5.0 tackles last season; only six of the combined 19 played in all 12 games last year. The linebacking corps was stable, almost to a fault (last year's starters combined for 93 percent of the unit's tackles, and now two of the three are gone), but the front and the back of the defense were shuffling all season. That takes its toll.
But hey, if you have to replace six of your top 10 linemen, at least you know the other four got decent minutes. And hey, if you have to replace six of 10, at least only a couple of them were truly solid. The line was pushed around quite a bit against the run in 2012, only making a handful of plays and getting burned consistently in short-yardage situations. Big tackle Joey Mbu does return to lead the way, but it does appear at first glance that the line will once again be the weak spot for this defense. That's a shame, as the linebackers still have promise as long as Derrick Mathews is roaming.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derrick Mathews||MLB||6'0, 214||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||86.0||10.7%||17||6||0||5||2||0|
|Efrem Oliphant||LB||6'1, 230||Jr.||*** (5.6)||11||8.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|George Bamfo||WLB||5'11, 218||Sr.||*** (5.5)||11||6.5||0.8%||1||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Austin Wilson||SLB||6'0, 225||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Trevon Randle||WLB||6'2, 218||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Elandon Roberts||MLB||6'1, 223||So.||NR|
|Davonte Thomas||LB||6'0, 210||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Steven Taylor||SLB||6'0, 211||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Trevon Stewart||FS||5'9, 192||So.||*** (5.5)||12||89.0||11.1%||3.5||1||1||7||0||0|
|Zach McMillian||CB||5'10, 178||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||40.0||5.0%||0||0||5||6||0||0|
|Thomas Bates||CB||5'10, 183||Sr.||** (5.3)||12||28.0||3.5%||1||0||0||10||0||1|
|Adrian McDonald||SS||5'10, 191||So.||*** (5.5)||9||26.5||3.3%||1||0||2||1||2||1|
|Colton Valencia||FS||5'11, 189||Sr.||*** (5.5)||10||23.0||2.9%||1||0||0||0||0||1|
|Earl Foster||DB||6'1, 192||So.||*** (5.5)||12||1.5||0.2%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Alex Tillman||CB||5'10, 187||Jr.||NR|
|William Jackson||DB||6'1, 175||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Jarrett Irving||SS||5'10, 191||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Steven Aikens||FS||6'2, 200||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Brandon Wilson||CB||5'11, 195||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Turon Walker||CB||5'11, 190||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kent London||DB||6'2, 215||Jr.||** (5.4)|
9. Ball skills aplenty
D.J. Hayden was a defensive captain and a corner good enough to get picked 12th in the 2013 NFL Draft despite the fact that his season came to a strange, terrifying early end in November and he wasn't fully recovered and cleared until recently. When a mid-major (low-major?) school loses a talent like that, the absence will likely be felt.
But the Cougars' secondary still won't lack for aggression without Hayden. Corners Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates combined for 21 passes defensed, sophomore safety Trevon Stewart made a ton of plays considering his youth, and others like sophomore safety Adrian McDonald, senior safety (and Texas A&M transfer) Colton Valencia, some JUCO transfers and three-star redshirt freshman should ensure that Houston's two-deep isn't that much worse off than last year's. And that's a good thing, since the line will bee needing help once again.
|Richie Leone||6'3, 215||Sr.||60||45.5||6||24||18||70.0%|
|Richie Leone||6'3, 215||Sr.||71||62.7||25||35.2%|
|Sam Martin||6'1, 185||So.||4||56||1||25.0%|
|Ryan Jackson||KR||5'10, 183||So.||14||21.7||0|
|Damian Payne||PR||6'0, 210||Jr.||9||3.7||0|
|Special Teams F/+||96|
|Field Goal Pct||27|
|Kick Returns Avg||97|
|Punt Returns Avg||113|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|9-Nov||at Central Florida||55|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||40|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||54|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / -2.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
10. Not the roughest slate in the world
A 10-4 record with a No. 35 F/+ ranking, followed by 5-7 and 62nd. A 13-1 record and No. 17 ranking, followed by 5-7 and 80th. Houston hasn't been boring recently; fortunes aren't supposed to change (and change again) that rapidly for most schools, but most schools aren't Houston. And I've got to say, with the schedule above, it's possible that Houston's fortunes shift dramatically yet again.
Let's say that Houston ranks between about 45th and 50th this year. That might be a bit optimistic considering the Cougars are still pretty young in spots, but their average performance over the last five years has been 48th (even if they've only once come close to that average in a given season). But against Houston's schedule, a top-50 team could win between about seven and 10 games. A top-40 team could win between about nine and 11.
Tony Levine has rather quickly put together an athletic, exciting roster that has solid talent at nearly every level (not sure about the defensive line), and a lot of sophomores and juniors now have the experience of juniors and seniors after last season's trials. Levine hasn't yet proven he can manage and maximize the talent at his disposal, but after just one year he hasn't proven he can't either. Even with an offense that might still be a year away from totally clicking, it's a big year and a big opportunity for the Cougars; will they be ready?