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1. High standards
If you're going to fire a guy who went 8-5 in back-to-back seasons, you better stick the landing. You better have somebody in mind, and you better get him.
Mack Rhoades just took over as Missouri's athletic director, but one of his last acts as Houston's A.D. was both difficult and successful. He dumped head coach Tony Levine before the Cougars' appearance in their eighth bowl in 10 years and a week later nailed down the services of Tom Herman, Ohio State's offensive coordinator and the award winner for best assistant in the country.
Houston went 21-17 over the last three seasons, but Levine's first year was marred by the loss of a ton from a 2011 squad that had gone 13-1 under Kevin Sumlin. The Cougars were due a few steps backwards and went 5-7, then rebounded. They flirted with the AAC title in 2013 before a late fade, and they saw a massive regression in luck in finishing 8-5 again in 2014.
Houston won more than eight games just three times in the 20-plus years since the Andre Ware era, with two of those in the three years before Levine took over. After starting 1991 ranked 12th in the preseason polls and crumbling to 4-7, they didn't emerge again as a viable threat until Art Briles showed up more than a decade later. Briles' success -- 6-6 in 2005, 10-4 in 2006, 8-5 in 2007 -- set the table for Sumlin, who went 10-4 in 2009 and 13-1 in 2011; UH reached seventh in 2011 and threatened for a BCS bid until an upset loss in the Conference USA title game.
Briles and Sumlin raised the bar, but Levine couldn't live up. A 7-1 start in 2013 turned into a 1-4 finish, and a 7-5 campaign in 2014 was marred by infuriating home losses, first to UTSA by 20 points (in the Cougars' debut at sparkly new TDECU Stadium, no less), then to Tulane.
Levine's firing was a surprise, but when Houston landed Herman, everything made sense. Herman was given a budget good enough to lock down an impressive staff, one that includes offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
2. Luck revisited
Going by averages, Houston's turnover margin should have been somewhere in the neighborhood of plus-3 or plus-4 last season. It was plus-25. The difference works out to about eight points per game.
Pick your adverb. Houston was absurdly, insanely, hilariously, incomprehensibly lucky.
In 2013, Houston broke the model. The Cougars' turnover numbers -- they recovered 63 percent of all fumbles, 31 percent of their passes defensed (interceptions plus break-ups) were picks (the national average hovers around 22 percent), and 11 percent of their opponents' passes defensed were picks -- were so far out of whack that it was hard to know how to even interpret it. These skewed numbers didn't result in more wins (they went 1-3 in one-possession games), but it prevented them from getting blown out and made them look closer than they were to being an AAC contender.
The turnover numbers were so interesting that Steven Godfrey went to Houston to chat about turnovers last fall.
[Defensive coordinator David] Gibbs has a theory that tempo offenses sacrifice two tenets of old-school football logic when it comes to turnovers:
1. Maximizing the skill players with the best hands. Spread teams often rotate skill players during a drive. [...]
2. The lack of attention given to turnovers in hurry-up practice schedules. Gibbs took a full year off after being let go by the Texans in 2011 and toured college campuses to scout systems before joining the Cougars. [...]
There can be a downside. The emphasis on ball-stripping, no matter how technically sound, allows for additional yardage. That's why Houston ignores total yardage, because a 65-yard drive that ends with a fumble recovery is better than a 45-yard drive that ends with a field goal.
Putting an emphasis on aggressive plays while showing a willingness to give up the occasional big play is rather logical. If you have a defense that is fast enough to make risks pay off, and if you have an offense good enough to keep up on the scoreboard, this approach can work.
But stripping ball-carriers and confusing quarterbacks isn't the same as forcing turnovers. They can create more turnover opportunities, but your fumble recovery rates are still going to regress toward 50 percent over time, and if your ratio of interceptions to break-ups is a bit too high, it's going to regress as well.
That's what we saw in 2014. With the same defensive mindset and the same focus on turnovers, Houston's turnover margin shrank to plus-8; the Cougars recovered 20 of 41 fumbles (49 percent), and while their INT-to-PBU ratio remained high (31 percent of their passes defensed were interceptions), opponents held onto interceptions (29 percent of opponents' passes defensed were interceptions). Quarterback John O'Korn managed just a 2.2 percent interception rate as a freshman, but it more than doubled to 4.6 percent, and he finished 2014 on the bench.
Gibbs' turnover-friendly approach still worked out for him: Levine was fired, but Gibbs got a promotion to Texas Tech defensive coordinator.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 73|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|1-Nov||at South Florida||123||27-3||W||81%||20.1||100%|
|Points Per Game||29.8||60||20.6||15|
3. A well-timed slide
When you slide from 35th in the F/+ rankings to 73rd and go 2-4 in one-possession games, you can expect your overall record to slide, too. That it didn't for Houston tells you all you need to know about the Cougars' schedule. Seven games against teams that ranked 90th or worse in the F/+ rankings gave them a nice cushion for bowl eligibility.
Immediately following the season-opening dud against UTSA, Houston was a pretty good team, one good enough to take down eventual conference champion Memphis on the road, thump Temple and USF, and nearly beat BYU in Provo. The Cougars fell apart down the stretch, but so did the schedule.
- Average Percentile Performance (Games 2-8): 55% (record: 5-2)
- Average Percentile Performance (Games 9-13): 30% (record: 3-2)
Playing at the 55th percentile is playing like a top-60 team; the 30th percentile is a top-90 level. But before the finale at Cincinnati, four consecutive opponents ranked 93rd or worse. And a thrilling comeback against Pitt in the Armed Forces Bowl gave them the same record they had in 2013 despite the regression.
Administration wasn't fooled. Wins aside, this was not a good team, and a coaching change was probably warranted.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||41.3%||68||Succ. Rt. +||93.7||94|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.2||75||Def. FP+||100.0||65|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||80||Redzone S&P+||92.6||87|
|Q1 Rk||95||1st Down Rk||63|
|Q2 Rk||112||2nd Down Rk||59|
|Q3 Rk||45||3rd Down Rk||62|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Greg Ward Jr.||5'11, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8423||177||263||2010||12||7||67.3%||21||7.4%||6.6|
|Bear Fenimore||6'1, 222||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8038|
4. An exciting (and light) lump of clay
Despite endless injuries, Ohio State quarterbacks produced at an incredibly high level over the last two years. With Tom Herman as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, four Buckeye signal callers (Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton in 2013, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones in 2014) completed 64 percent for 6,540 yards, threw for 80 touchdowns to 21 interceptions, averaged 7.5 yards per throw (including sacks), and rushed for 3,099 non-sack yards and 30 touchdowns.
Four quarterbacks, 6,000-plus passing yards, 3,000-plus rushing yards, 110 touchdowns. In two years! Remember when a 2,000/1,000 season was the sign of a great dual-threat quarterback? With Herman calling the shots, Ohio State QBs pulled off 50 percent more than that.
With that in mind, look at Greg Ward Jr.'s stats from 2014. Ward spent the first month as a receiver before taking over at quarterback*, so if you project his nine-game QB totals over 13 games, you get something like 2,900 passing yards, 17 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, and 1,034 rushing yards. You think Herman can work with that?
Granted, Ward did most of his damage in three games. His passer rating was over 175 against Temple, Tulsa, and Pitt. Against everybody else, his completion rate was 63 percent with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Still, Temple might have had the best defense he faced last year, and his legs (80-plus rushing yards in four games) made him a threat even when the pass wasn't working. Herman liked what he saw from Ward this spring, and he will enter fall camp as the favorite.
Of course, Ohio State's quarterback injuries weren't all because of bad luck; Herman quarterbacks take a lot of hits, and Ward is listed at 178 pounds. Herman has mentioned that he will try to get Ward up to at least 185 by fall, but that is still slight. The odds are good that the backups will be involved. Can Adam Schulz (a Utah starter in 2013 when Travis Wilson got hurt) or Bear Fenimore maintain?
|Kenneth Farrow||RB||5'10, 218||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8432||186||1037||14||5.6||6.1||39.8%||1||1|
|Ryan Jackson||RB||5'10, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8392||112||610||5||5.4||6.9||39.3%||2||0|
|Greg Ward Jr.||QB||5'11, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8423||97||716||6||7.4||8.6||46.4%||4||3|
|Javin Webb||RB||5'8, 175||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8026||19||133||1||7.0||9.9||36.8%||0||0|
|Kaliq Kokuma||RB||6'0, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8238|
|Tyreik Gray||RB||5'11, 185||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8787|
|Kevrin Justice||RB||5'11, 190||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8159|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Demarcus Ayers||WR-X||5'10, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8498||48||33||335||68.8%||11.2%||58.3%||7.0||-59||7.0||33.0|
|Ryan Jackson||RB||5'10, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8392||31||25||199||80.6%||7.3%||54.8%||6.4||-92||6.4||19.6|
|Steven Dunbar||WR-Z||6'2, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7893||30||20||286||66.7%||7.0%||73.3%||9.5||46||9.4||28.1|
|Greg Ward Jr.||QB/WR||5'11, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8423||29||15||139||51.7%||6.8%||44.8%||4.8||-51||5.1||13.7|
|Kenneth Farrow||RB||5'10, 218||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8432||24||20||149||83.3%||5.6%||50.0%||6.2||-82||6.1||14.7|
|Hayden Daniels||TE||6'4, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7800|
|Derek McLemore||WR-H||5'10, 185||So.||NR||NR|
|Donald Gage||WR||5'11, 181||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8368|
|Elton Dyer||WR||6'2, 182||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8244|
|Latrell Martin||WR||6'1, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8267|
|Romello Brooker||WR-Z||6'4, 210||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8038|
|Isaiah Johnson||WR||6'3, 190||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8176|
|WR||6'2, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8463|
|Rusty Clark||TE||6'7, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7794|
|Terry Mark||WR||6'1, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8497|
5. Loaded backfield, unknown receiving corps
Herman's Ohio State attacks were run-first units that used a dual-threat quarterback and a workhorse running back. Buckeye backs averaged about 28 carries per game in 2013-14, and Houston backs should be more than capable.
Seniors Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson averaged about 25 carries and 127 yards per game; both were reasonably efficient and quite explosive. And if one of them gets hurt or tired, there are exciting backups to call on, from sophomore Javin Webb to redshirt freshman Kaliq Kokuma to true freshmen Tyreik Gray and Kevrin Justice. With Ward at the helm of the option, this is a big-play running attack waiting to happen.
That's good because the big plays might be hard to come by in the passing game, at least if 2014 is any indication. Only one returning wideout (Demarcus Ayers) had more than 20 catches, and he averaged barely 10 yards per. Steven Dunbar did average more than 14 yards per catch as a freshman, but he caught just 20 passes, and in terms of known weapons, that's pretty much it. There are plenty of untested three-star options, and if the run is strong enough, there could be plenty of play-action potential.
(Oregon transfer Chance Allen came back to Houston to be closer to his ailing mother, but with the NCAA cracking down on hardship waivers, he probably won't be eligible until 2016.)
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Rowdy Harper||RG||52||2014 1st All-AAC|
|Ben Dew||LG||6'4, 315||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13|
|Alex Cooper||RT||6'4, 297||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13|
|Zach Johnson||RT||6'6, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7556||11|
|Damien Parris||RG||6'6, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8351||1|
|Marcus Oliver||LT||6'3, 270||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8042||0|
|Mac Long||C||6'4, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8463||0|
|Josh Thomas||RT||6'6, 315||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8462||0|
|Carter Wall||OL||6'4, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8610||0|
|Darius Joiner||OL||6'4, 285||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7993|
|Kameron Eloph||OL||6'4, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503|
|Josh Jones||OL||6'6, 280||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8472|
6. What to make of the line?
The offensive line is a mix of experienced former two-star recruits (2014 starters Ben Dew and Alex Cooper and 2013 starter Zach Johnson) and untested former three-stars. It was good at creating downfield opportunities for its runners (52nd in Opportunity Rate) but sprang too many leaks to be successful (104th in Stuff Rate, 109th in Adj. Sack Rate).
Now it must replace three starters, including all-conference guard Rowdy Harper. Line coach Derek Warehime will be tested, though the quality of the backfield will do the line some favors.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.1%||77||Succ. Rt. +||85.1||120|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.4||64||Off. FP+||98.0||88|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.8||23||Redzone S&P+||79.6||126|
|Q1 Rk||71||1st Down Rk||62|
|Q2 Rk||82||2nd Down Rk||64|
|Q3 Rk||107||3rd Down Rk||77|
7. A hell of a DC hire
David Gibbs' defense was excellent at creating turnover opportunities. It was also woefully inefficient. And now it must replace its starting line and two of its three best linebackers.
It wouldn't be smart to expect too much improvement, but Herman made an inspiring hire in Todd Orlando.
Orlando is still a pretty young guy, but he boasts a decade of coordinator experience, first at UConn, then FIU, then Utah State. His six UConn defenses ranked 51st or better in Def. S&P+ (four in the top 40), his first FIU defense ranked 57th (best ever for FIU), and despite turnover, his two USU defense ranked fifth and 32nd. He usually finds results in his first year, and his aggressive 3-4 scheme fits with the Houston personnel he inherits. While USU made plenty of havoc plays, Orlando's focus in Year 1 will likely be efficiency, even if it comes at the expense of some TFLs and turnovers.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|B.J. Singleton||DT||6'4, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8592||13||14.5||2.0%||3.0||1.0||0||3||0||0|
|Cameron Malveaux||DE||6'6, 270||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||13||10.5||1.4%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Tyus Bowser||DE||6'3, 228||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8311||13||9.0||1.2%||3.5||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tomme Mark||DT||6'2, 285||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8717||12||5.5||0.7%||0.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Nick Thurman||DT||6'4, 290||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8159||5||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chauntez Jackson||DE||6'4, 265||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8463||12||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Zach Vaughan||DE||6'4, 245||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8429|
|Jerard Carter||DT||6'2, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7926|
|Mason Denley||DE||6'4, 270||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8260|
|Tyrell Thompson||DE||6'3, 255||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8222|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Steven Taylor||SLB||6'1, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7200||12||55.5||7.6%||9.0||4.0||0||2||3||0|
|Matthew Adams||WLB||6'0, 208||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8308||13||31.0||4.2%||4.5||2.0||0||1||2||0|
|Elandon Roberts||MLB||6'0, 230||Sr.||NR||NR||12||21.5||2.9%||3.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Luke Stice||MLB||6'0, 235||Sr.||NR||NR||13||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|D'Juan Hines||SLB||6'2, 208||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8287||10||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ja'Von Shelley||LB||6'1, 210||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8023|
|D.J. Jenkins||LB||6'2, 245||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8114|
|Jordan Milburn||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7956|
|Camden Ross||LB||6'2, 241||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7926|
|Emeke Egbule||LB||6'3, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826|
8. Major rebuild in the front seven
If you're going to move from a 4-3 to a 3-4, you might as well do it in a year when you're retooling anyway. Last year, 12 members of Houston's front seven logged at least three tackles for loss, but only five return. Linebacker Steven Taylor is a proven entity, and tackle B.J. Singleton has gotten plenty of playing time over the last two years, but the success of the new defense will hinge on newcomers or former role players like Tyus Bowser (now an OLB), Cameron Malveaux (could end up at either DE or OLB), and linebackers Matthew Adams and Elandon Roberts.
Recruiting hasn't been a major issue, and Orlando should find plenty of exciting athletes, but there is too much to replace here for any serious Year 1 improvement.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Adrian McDonald||SS||5'10, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7300||13||58.0||7.9%||0.5||0||5||2||3||1|
|Trevon Stewart||FS||5'9, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8357||13||43.5||5.9%||2||0||3||4||0||0|
|Howard Wilson||CB||6'1, 176||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7906||13||37.5||5.1%||1||0||3||3||0||0|
|William Jackson||CB||6'1, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||13||30.0||4.1%||1.5||0||2||10||1||0|
|Brandon Wilson||CB||6'0, 198||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8163||13||27.0||3.7%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Tyler White||DB||5'10, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||13||9.5||1.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Lee Hightower||DB||6'2, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||6||9.0||1.2%||0.5||0||1||3||0||0|
|Khalil Williams||FS||6'0, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8119||7||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Earl Foster||DB||6'0, 192||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8057||11||6.0||0.8%||1||0||1||0||1||0|
|Garrett Davis||S||6'1, 189||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7985|
|Jeremy Winchester||CB||6'0, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8391|
|Joeal Williams||CB||5'10, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8030|
|Michael Eke||DB||6'2, 200||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7200|
9. Few worries in the secondary
If the front seven is sound, the secondary could thrive. As was the case last year, it appears pass defense will be ahead of run defense, not only because of the turnover up front but because of the return of Houston's top five DBs.
Safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart mixed play-making (2.5 tackles for loss, eight picks, six break-ups, three forced fumbles) with play-prevention, and William Jackson is one of the stickier corners in the AAC. There were some breakdowns, especially against the run, and since Orlando is likely to take some risks up front, big plays could be a concern again. But pass defense is the least of the concerns.
|Logan Piper||6'1, 200||Sr.||43||39.3||4||19||13||74.4%|
|Ty Cummings||5'10, 180||Jr.||75||61.6||21||2||28.0%|
|Kyle Bullard||5'11, 170||Sr.||42-47||10-15||66.7%||6-7||85.7%|
|Ty Cummings||5'10, 180||Jr.||1-1||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|Demarcus Ayers||KR||5'10, 178||Jr.||34||17.4||0|
|Ryan Jackson||KR||5'10, 190||Sr.||3||12.7||0|
|Greg Ward Jr.||PR||5'11, 178||Jr.||9||7.0||0|
|Demarcus Ayers||PR||5'10, 178||Jr.||5||4.4||0|
|Special Teams F/+||96|
|Field Goal Efficiency||87|
|Punt Return Efficiency||86|
|Kick Return Efficiency||125|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||23|
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|24-Oct||at Central Florida||60|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||2.1% (53)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||79 / 71|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||8 / 6.0|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+0.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||10 (5, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||7.6 (0.4)|
10. Better not fade late
This schedule is the opposite of last year's; Houston plays seven opponents that ranked worse than 90th in F/+, but five pop up among the season's first six games. Three of the four best come after November 1.
Considering the makeup of this team, that could be a good thing. The offense should be prolific enough to put up points against all early opponents not named Louisville, and the defense could have time to find its footing against early opponents like Tennessee Tech and Tulane. Two other early opponents, Tulsa and SMU, will be breaking in as many new pieces on offense as Houston is on defense.
If you're the optimistic type, you can talk yourself into an in-process Houston winning early and an improved Houston playing its best ball against the best opponents (all at home) late. Injuries could derail that, and there's always a chance that questionable units like offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker never gel.
But there are enough weapons at key positions (namely quarterback and running back) to be intrigued. And it's hard not to be impressed enough by Herman and his hires to assume they figure out how to win quite a few games in their first year.