One has to credit the University of Houston's football program. Like the state in which it resides, the Cougars do nothing halfway. The Cougars went 11-1 in 1973, 2-8 in 1975, and 10-2 in 1976, reaching the Cotton Bowl in their first season in the SWC. They went 11-1 again in 1979, went 1-10 in 1986, then a combined 28-6 in 1988-90, winning a Heisman Trophy and, in 1990, reaching as high as third in the polls. They followed that by going 2-19-1 in 1993-94 and 0-11 in 2001. While some teams, even in their own (current) conference -- Southern Miss (14 years of between 7-9 wins since 1996) and UAB (eight years of between 3-5 wins since 2002) -- have managed to carve out the most consistent, mundane (good or bad) existences, Houston goes big.
In 2011, Houston carved out plenty of "big" real estate once again, not only coming within one game of a BCS bowl bid (which would have been their first … Cotton Bowls aside, anyway), but creating an explosive team by almost any definition.
Their offense scored a combined 265 points in a four-game stretch in October and November.
Their quarterback not only broke the career passing yardage record, but crushed it. (He surpassed No. 2 Timmy Chang by 2,145 yards, or 10 more yards than LSU threw for in 2011.)
Three receivers ended up with at least 950 receiving yards, and two running backs ended up with at least 700 rushing yards.
They returned three kicks for touchdowns.
They ranked second in the nation in tackles for loss (linebacker Sammy Brown became the first player since 2007 to log 30 in one season).
They ranked fifth in passes defended, third in passes intercepted.
And for good measure, they allowed a lot of big plays, too.
This was xtreme, Dan Cortese-style football, and it helped to earn the Cougars a seat at the big kids' table (to the extent that the Big East still counts in this regard) that they had lost when the SWC collapsed in the mid-1990s as UH was going 2-19-1. Houston will soon join SMU, Boise State, et cetera, in the new Big East, and they will be building a new stadium to replace the storied but small Robertson Stadium next year. The Cougars are attempting to jump back into the major college football arms race, and the odds are pretty good that they will either succeed or fail with aplomb.
While aiming high in the future tense, Houston faces some serious transition in the present tense. Gone are the aforementioned explosive quarterback (Case Keenum) and linebacker (Sammy Brown). Gone are the top-four wide receivers and two of the top-three running backs. Gone, too, are two linebackers who combined for 44.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and 11 passes defended. And, of course, head coach Kevin Sumlin left to take the Texas A&M job. The machine is in place, and Houston will continue to play aggressive, with and without the ball; but there might be a few more kinks along the way in 2012. And this being Houston, the kinks will be just as spectacular as anything else.
Signs point to recovery. First, Sumlin's got quite the offensive resume himself (that's "offensive" as in scoring points, not "offensive" as in Fergie singing "Sweet Child O' Mine"), with coordinator-level experience at both Texas A&M and Oklahoma. He will probably figure things out with more experience at the quarterback position. Plus, he gets Keenum back for a sixth year of eligibility in 2011. Soon enough, we should be getting back to noticing how poor Houston's defense is instead of focusing on their lack of video game numbers on the offensive side of the ball. […]
There is a decent level of experience -- and Case Keenum -- returning (again, the offensive line and secondary are the keys). But whether or not we are supposed to take Houston seriously as a candidate for either moving to a major conference (TCU needs a primary Big East rival, right?) or simply a candidate for taking the Mid-Major Leap, will be determined by defensive improvement. Houston plays exciting football -- no single game made me long for the SWC more than the '09 Houston-Texas Tech game (Can you imagine a regular 9pm SWC game? Houston-Tech, Houston-Baylor, SMU-Tech, A&M-TCU, etc., to finish off your Saturday of football?) -- but the defense holds the key to shifting from "exciting" to "really good."
Defense did indeed hold the key. In 2009, Houston ranked fifth in Off. F/+ but just 43rd in overall F/+ because of a horrendous defense (108th in Def. F/+). In 2011, the Keenum-led offense rebounded to eighth in Off. F/+, but the Cougars surged overall because the defense improved from 111th to a downright-respectable 59th. They attacked, attacked and attacked, and like a big server in tennis who just bombs away in his return game in hopes of getting a single service break, Houston created just enough turnovers and big plays to give the offense the opening it needed. The Cougars were an all-around strong team in 2011. And in Sammy Brown, they had a player who was as good as, or better than, any of his offensive counterparts. In 2012, Keenum, Brown, and their coach are all gone.
Once an offensive system is in place, how much does it matter if the head coach leaves? We'll find out this season as Tony Levine takes over for Sumlin and Mike Nesbitt takes over the offensive coordinator's chair. Nesbitt ran, basically, Houston's Air Raid offense while at West Texas A&M in 2010 (they ranked second in Division II yardage) and at Stephen F. Austin in 2011 (top 15 nationally in FCS). He inherits a batch of personnel that is well-versed in the ways of the Air Raid, but with so much turnover at the skill positions, there will still be some adjustment.
Gone: Quarterback Case Keenum, the two-time Sammy Baugh award winner who passed for almost 7,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in high school then passed for over 19,000 yards and 150 touchdowns in college. In his three full seasons as a starter, Houston's offense ranked 12th (2008), fifth (2009) and eighth (2011) in Off. F/+. When he got hurt in 2010, Houston fell to 30th.
Gone: Running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall. Beall led the Cougars in rushing in 2010, and Hayes did in 2011. For their careers, they combined for 4,454 rushing yards, 1,814 receiving yards, and 71 touchdowns.
Gone: Receivers Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith. In 2011, they combined for 299 receptions (on 430 targets), 4,236 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns. Again, that was just in 2011, not for their careers.
Gone: All-conference center Chris Thompson, who started a whopping 49 career games for UH.
While that is an incredible amount of turnover to absorb, however, the cupboard isn't bare. One has to start with quarterback David Piland, who got a head start to his career as a freshman in 2010 when Keenum went down. He acquitted himself reasonably well, getting sacked just 1.1 percent of the time (Keenum in 2011: 2.6 percent) and averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt (Keenum in 2011: 8.9). He redshirted in 2011 while Keenum was finishing up, and he officially locked down the starter job this spring. He needs to cut down on the picks (his 4.1 percent interception rate in 2010 was much, much higher than Keenum's 0.8 percent in 2011), but that should come with experience. There is no promise that Piland will put up the same numbers, but one could do worse.
The leading returning rusher, and receiver, is junior running back Charles Sims, who averaged a stark 7.5 yards per carry and caught 51 passes. He personified the uniqueness of the Houston offense. Sims and Hayes carried the ball just a combined 18 times per game, but they were also targeted with eight passes per game. Not only that, but they were explosive in the passing game -- each caught over 80 percent of his targets, and each averaged 11 yards per catch, a rather high average for a back. Keenum used his backs as aggressive weapons in the passing game, not just "hopefully they'll get five or six yards" bailout options. Sims and redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow, who had a lovely spring, could replicate the success of Houston's recent running back units.
The leading returning wide receiver, Ronnie Williams, caught just 16 passes in 2011, but the candidates, and star ratings, are widespread. Three-star sophomore Daniel Spencer will join with seniors Williams, Dewayne Peace, Gino Collins, Isaiah Sweeney and Marcus Williams, while three-star junior college transfer Xavier Maxwell and four-star freshman Deontay Greenberry will get their chances soon. Edwards, Johnson and Carrier were an incredible threesome, and Houston fans shouldn't expect their replacements to match their production, but they should still make for an interesting passing game.
Meanwhile, while Thompson is gone, the other four starters on the line return (71 career starts), including second-team tackle Jacolby Ashworth. It also bears mentioning that, of the projected 2012 starters, only Ashworth and potentially a receiver or two are seniors. The team will hope to work out the kinks in 2012 and hit the ground running in 2013.
It bears repeating: no matter the headlines the offense drew, Houston would not have succeeded to the level they did without a defense that at least occasionally played its part. After some early-season glitches -- their first four FBS opponents combined to average 33 points and 457 yards per game -- the Cougars' defense began to click. A week after allowing 538 yards and 42 points to UTEP, they allowed 284 and three to East Carolina. They became effective with a bit of an all-or-nothing attacking mentality. They rang up 12 tackles for loss versus East Carolina, nine versus Marshall, 11 versus Rice, 10 versus UAB and nine versus SMU. After picking off five passes in their first five games, they picked off 16 in their final nine. Even their glitchy performance in the Conference USA title game (486 yards and 49 points to Southern Miss) could be at least partially explained by the fact that the Houston offense was doing the defense few favors. And in an easy, 30-14 win over Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl, they allowed 69 yards on one play and just 237 the rest of the way.
Houston's success, in part, lied in the way they finally began to understand and thrive within the 3-4 structure. Linebackers Marcus McGraw, Derrick Mathews, Sammy Brown and Phillip Steward combined for 313.5 tackles, 37 percent of Houston's total, along with an incredible 62.5 tackles for loss (18.5 sacks) and 26 passes defended (10 picks). They played as aggressive a 3-4 as you will find, and after some growing pains over the first year of implementation, the personnel began to fit the scheme. On a play-for-play basis, the Cougars' defense was far from amazing -- they ranked 84th in Rushing S&P+, 73rd in Passing S&P+, 82nd on passing downs (like I said above, they both made and allowed plenty of big plays) -- but they were effective enough in attacking you on standard downs that, after a game full of trying (and often succeeding) to convert passing downs, you gave in late. Houston's defense ranked 40th in the first quarter, 79th in the second, 104th in the third … and 22nd in the fourth. If you were lucky, you could keep up with the Cougars for three quarters, but probably not for four.
Of course, now the scheme is changing, at least a little bit. New defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant spent the spring shifting the Cougars back toward four down linemen. There were not that many tackles in the rotation last year, and this shift will likely result in an undersized line, but with the losses of McGraw and Brown, now is as good a time as any to make a change. Bryant does, however, promise maintenance of last year's level of aggression. And that's a good thing considering linebackers will still probably be the strength of this team. Mathews and Steward return, as do last year's second-stringers and a host of intriguing youngsters like redshirt freshman Trevon Randle (originally an LSU signee), three-star sophomore Efrem Oliphant and a couple of incoming three-star freshmen.
If the front seven can retain a level of effectiveness, an aggressive secondary should continue to make plays. Only strong safety Nick Saenz is gone from last year's two-deep, and the Cougars boast a trio of really interesting cornerbacks: D.J. Hayden, Zachary McMillian and Thomas Bates combined for 10 tackles for loss (mostly from Hayden), six interceptions and 25 passes broken up in 2011. Hayden even forced five fumbles, too.
When you lose so many integral pieces from a breakthrough squad, it is unwise to set the bar too high. But with six opponents projected to rank 104th or worse, eight 82nd or worse, Houston fans should certainly still feel comfortable setting the bar at eight or nine wins, especially with Tulsa and Louisiana Tech visiting Robertson Stadium.
Most of the Houston Cougars you've heard of are gone, but when Kevin Sumlin left Houston for College Station, he left behind a program with sturdy bones. I think Tulsa should absolutely be the favorite in the CUSA West, but Houston will have something to say about that. The depth has eroded at the skill positions and at linebacker, but when you've still got Charles Sims, Jacolby Ashworth, Derrick Mathews, Philip Steward, D.J. Hayden, etc., you can still put a solid product on the field.
More than anything else, however, Houston will need some receivers to step up. They have a wealth of candidates, but someone will need to be able break tackles and turn eight yards into 18, somebody will need to develop into a reliable third-and-8 candidate, etc. This offense will almost certainly be efficient, but explosiveness, on both sides of the ball, is what made them so special last year, and that is the one thing I cannot guarantee they will have in 2012.
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