clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Houston Cougars were good (and lucky) in 2015. Expectations are now sky-high

New, comments

Last year raised the bar awfully high, but UH beat some huge odds to walk away with some of those wins. Can the Cougars do it again anyway?

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Houston was good

Houston head coach Tom Herman lived up to the hype in his first year back in Texas. The first-time head coach engineered 13 wins, an AAC title, a 3-0 record vs. power conference teams, a Peach Bowl title, and the school's first AP top-10 finish in 25 years.

It didn't take long to see how well-managed the Cougars were. They controlled field position (17th in field position margin). They figured out how to keep the chains moving when they fell behind schedule. They closed drives better than their opponent. They seemed to score on the play after every turnover their opponents gave them.

This was a smart, athletic team, and when you consider the coach, that makes sense. Herman was Urban Meyer's right-hand man as the Buckeyes went 38-3 and won the 2014 national title.

For Herman, time under Meyer was like the finishing polish. Herman had already cut his teeth in the coaching ranks under Mack Brown (Texas graduate assistant), Ron Randleman (SHSU receivers/special teams coach), David Bailiff (Rice offensive coordinator), and Paul Rhoads (Iowa State offensive coordinator), putting together his vision of a spread offense with power principles. Under Meyer, not only did he perfect that vision with one of the game's great offensive innovators, he also learned how to be a great head coach.

Houston looked like a Meyer team last year. Meyer teams dominate field position (Ohio State was first in the country in field position margin last year, fourth in 2014), they pounce on mistakes, and they know how to maneuver in close games. In Meyer's four years in Columbus, Ohio State is 13-2 in games decided by one possession. He's 33-13 overall in such games.

Close games are partially decided by randomness, but there's no question that some coaches manage play-calling and the clock better. So it's not pure luck that Houston went 3-1 in one-possession games on the way to a spectacular 13-1 season.

And when you combine superb coaching with incredible recruiting -- per the 247Sports Composite, Houston's 2016 recruiting class ranked 40th overall; no other team from a Group of Five conference ranked higher than 57th -- it's not hard to see why the #HTownTakeover hype train is charging. And oh, is it charging.

2. Houston was lucky

It's also not hard to see how things could have taken a hard turn for the worse.

  • Houston recovered two of three fumbles and needed a plus-3 turnover margin and a kick return score to beat Louisville by three.
  • The Cougars recovered two of three fumbles and needed a drastic field position advantage (+13 yards per possession) and a pick six to beat Cincinnati by three despite a massive yards-per-play deficit (UC 8.5, UH 4.9).
  • They trailed Memphis by 20 points with 13 minutes left and were outgained by 98 yards, but won when Memphis missed a field goal at the buzzer.

Houston's win expectancy in these games (the likelihood of a win based on factors like efficiency, field position, etc.) was 24 percent, 15 percent, and 48 percent, respectively.

Last year, teams facing 15 percent expectancy went 1-10. Teams facing 24 percent ended up 1-11. UH was the only winner of each. The odds of winning all three of these games: around 1.7 percent.

Leaning on field position ... executing well when the score is tight ... these things aren't luck. But Houston was incredibly lucky to finish 13-1 instead of 10-4 or 11-3.

The Cougars recovered 65 percent of all fumbles (only Arkansas' 65.5 percent was luckier). Opponents picked off only 15 percent of Houston's defensed passes (the national average is usually around 22 percent), which was a little lucky. Add that up, and the Cougars benefited from the third-most turnovers luck in the country, about 5 points per game.

When you aren't necessarily better than your opponents on down-for-down efficiency -- Houston was 59th in offensive Success Rate+, 67th on defense -- and you have to rely on coaching and timing and the Little Things™ to bail yourself out, you're giving yourself no margin for error. Even neutral turnovers luck could have made a huge difference in Houston's record.

Consequently, S&P+ wasn't a Cougar believer. Houston ranked 44th in S&P+ last season, lower than most computer ratings, but other measures derived from play-by-play were similarly skeptical. ESPN's FPI ranked the Cougars 34th, Ed Feng's The Power Rank 33rd.

This was a flawed team experiencing a wonderful season, and while they were incredibly fun to watch, they may not have been using a replicable formula for victory.

Even without luck, Houston's turnaround was outstanding. The Cougars improved from 90th in S&P+ to 44th, and even if they had just risen to 10 or 11 wins, that still beats 2014's 8-5.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 13-1 | Adj. Record: 10-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 26 | Final S&P+ Rk: 44
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Tennessee Tech N/A 52-24 W 59% 99% +14.4
12-Sep at Louisville 39 34-31 W 34% 24% +20.3 +16.0
26-Sep Texas State 116 59-14 W 93% 100% +40.3 +28.5
3-Oct at Tulsa 95 38-24 W 71% 96% +22.5 +7.0
8-Oct SMU 106 49-28 W 70% 99% +4.8 -4.5
16-Oct at Tulane 119 42-7 W 85% 100% +22.0 +16.0
24-Oct at Central Florida 128 59-10 W 82% 100% +24.5 +27.5
31-Oct Vanderbilt 83 34-0 W 90% 100% +20.8 +22.5
7-Nov Cincinnati 72 33-30 W 25% 15% -8.7 -5.0
14-Nov Memphis 41 35-34 W 48% 48% -3.5 -6.0
21-Nov at Connecticut 80 17-20 L 18% 13% -13.4 -3.0
27-Nov Navy 21 52-31 W 65% 63% +27.6 +20.0
5-Dec Temple 45 24-13 W 81% 95% +12.1 +4.0
31-Dec vs. Florida State 12 38-24 W 69% 69% +28.7 +21.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 34.8 29 27.2 59
Points Per Game 40.4 10 20.7 20

3. Zero margin for error

One last thing about last year. If you're looking for how Houston could grade out so low within the S&P+ top 50, look at how the Cougars fared against top-50 teams.

Odds favored about a 10-4 season, and the fact that the Cougars exceeded that was thrilling. But thrilling doesn't equal sustainable.

  • UH vs. S&P+ top 50:
    Yards per play: Opp 6.0, UH 5.4 | Average win expectancy: 60% | Likely record: 3-2 | Actual record: 5-0
  • UH vs. everybody else:
    Yards per play: UH 6.6, Opp 5.2 | Average win expectancy: 80% | Likely record: 7-2 | Actual record: 8-0

Of course, there are different kinds of luck. Houston couldn't keep a running back healthy; Kenneth Farrow, Ryan Jackson, and Javin Webb all missed time, which led to starting cornerback Brandon Wilson briefly changing to offense. (He thrived, rushing 33 times for 181 yards against strong Navy and Temple defenses.)

The offensive line was shuffled almost weekly, with 11 different players starting at least one game. That almost always spells disaster but didn't.

The defense was mostly stable but did lose cornerback Howard Wilson three games into the season.

And of course, quarterback Greg Ward Jr. injured his ankle against Memphis, missing a large portion of both that game and the UConn loss the next week. With a healthy Ward and these other results, Houston probably goes 14-0.

In this way, better injuries luck could offset regression in the other luck department. And an outstanding 2016 recruiting class could create impressive depth.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.31 42 IsoPPP+ 108.1 43
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 43.7% 43 Succ. Rt. + 103.2 59
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.2 5 Def. FP+ 27.3 22
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.2 10 Redzone S&P+ 106.4 50
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.9 ACTUAL 14 -5.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 20 42 59 43
RUSHING 13 44 72 33
PASSING 44 45 43 54
Standard Downs 58 70 60
Passing Downs 27 43 26
Q1 Rk 55 1st Down Rk 57
Q2 Rk 62 2nd Down Rk 101
Q3 Rk 33 3rd Down Rk 30
Q4 Rk 73

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Greg Ward Jr. 5'11, 185 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8423 232 345 2828 17 6 67.2% 25 6.8% 7.3
Kyle Postma 6'3, 205 Jr. NR NR 43 68 453 3 1 63.2% 3 4.2% 6.3
Adam Schulz 7 13 129 0 0 53.8% 0 0.0% 9.9
Bear Fenimore 6'1, 215 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8038
D'Eriq King 5'10, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8776
Bowman Sells 6'2, 182 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8574

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Kenneth Farrow RB 186 958 12 5.2 5.6 33.9% 1 0
Greg Ward Jr. QB 5'11, 185 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8423 173 1253 21 7.2 6.9 51.4% 9 3
Ryan Jackson RB 84 407 4 4.8 4.5 36.9% 1 0
Javin Webb RB 70 277 4 4.0 3.4 30.0% 0 0
Brandon Wilson RB/CB 37 188 2 5.1 3.6 43.2% 0 0
Demarcus Ayers WR 25 147 1 5.9 9.4 36.0% 3 2
Kyle Postma QB 6'3, 205 Jr. NR NR 24 202 1 8.4 8.1 54.2% 2 1
Kaliq Kokuma RB 5'11, 210 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8238 18 92 0 5.1 5.9 27.8% 0 0
Duke Catalon
(Texas)
RB 6'0, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9155
Blake Hirsch RB 6'0, 220 So. NR NR
Josh Burrell RB 5'10, 247 RSFr. NR NR
Kevrin Justice RB 5'11, 190 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8159
Mulbah Car RB 5'11, 194 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8544







4. Got a running game?

Big plays bailed Houston out of some jams. The Cougars were just 72nd in Rushing Success Rate+ but ripped off 39 rushes of at least 20 yards, second in FBS.

Ward was responsible for 16 of these rushes, including one on first down. He also had nine carries of 10-plus yards on third-and-long. He was the reason Houston ran 39 percent of the time on passing downs (often a sign of conservatism) but ranked 27th in Passing Downs S&P+. He was a major threat on scrambles and draws, and he distracted defenses enough on such downs to complete big passes, too: On third-and-7 or more, he was 33-for-52 (63 percent) for 558 yards, four touchdowns, and only one interception.

Of course, he wouldn't have had to prove himself on passing downs so much had Houston been able to run more efficiently on first down. The three primary running backs -- Farrow, Jackson, Webb -- gained at least five yards on a putrid 34 percent of their carries. They weren't typically getting stopped in the backfield, but they were frequently getting stopped for a gain of only one or two.

Now Farrow, Jackson, and Webb are all gone, as are each of the four linemen who finished 2015 with at least 12 career starts. Granted, six guys with starting experience return, and simple stability could mean more than returnees -- whoever your starting five is at the beginning of the year, keep those five guys intact.

The corps of running backs will be brand new, but there's upside. Texas transfer Duke Catalon was a four-star recruit out of high school, and sophomore Kaliq Kokuma showed the same low-efficiency, high-explosiveness tendencies as everybody else in a handful of carries. In sophomores Blake Hirsch and Josh Burrell, there are a couple of burly options, and in Kevrin Justice and Mulbah Car, there are a couple of high-upside freshmen.

Still, there are plenty of questions about the running game, and the answer can't always be "Have Ward bail you out."

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Demarcus Ayers WR-H 129 98 1222 76.0% 31.0% 9.5 63.6% 56.6% 1.51
Chance Allen WR-Z 6'3, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8463 88 56 752 63.6% 21.2% 8.5 55.7% 51.1% 1.56
Steven Dunbar WR-X 6'3, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893 54 31 382 57.4% 13.0% 7.1 51.9% 37.0% 1.74
Linell Bonner WR-X 6'0, 200 Jr. NR NR 39 25 317 64.1% 9.4% 8.1 51.3% 48.7% 1.67
Tyler McCloskey TE 6'2, 245 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859 23 14 157 60.9% 5.5% 6.8 65.2% 52.2% 1.41
Ryan Jackson RB 18 12 111 66.7% 4.3% 6.2 61.1% 33.3% 1.54
Kenneth Farrow RB 10 10 119 100.0% 2.4% 11.9 50.0% 60.0% 1.67
Kyle Postma QB 6'3, 205 Jr. NR NR 9 6 145 66.7% 2.2% 16.1 44.4% 66.7% 2.49
Donald Gage WR-H
9 6 19 66.7% 2.2% 2.1 66.7% 22.2% 0.86
Isaiah Johnson WR-Z 6'4, 205 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8176 7 6 43 85.7% 1.7% 6.1 71.4% 57.1% 0.98
John Leday WR 6'0, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7819 7 4 41 57.1% 1.7% 5.9 57.1% 42.9% 1.16
Ra'Shaad Samples
(Oklahoma State)
WR 5'11, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9096 5 3 11 60.0% 1.3% 2.2 60.0% N/A N/A
Romello Brooker TE 6'4, 240 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8038
Chris Johnson (Baylor) TE
3 3 37 100.0% 0.8% 12.3 66.7% 66.7% 1.74
Alex Leslie (Iowa State) TE 6'5, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8195
Courtney Lark WR 6'1, 163 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9016
Marquez Stevenson WR 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8559
Keith Corbin WR 6'2, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8492
Terry Mark WR 6'1, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8497

5. A ton of athletes

Chance Allen was the epitome of consistency in 2015, catching at least three passes (and never more than six) in every game and averaging a solid 8.5 yards per target. Linell Bonner had seven catches for 92 yards in the division clincher against Navy.

Steven Dunbar caught seven passes for 150 yards against Tulsa in 2014.

Isaiah Johnson had maybe the best spring game of any player in the country this April: 15 catches, 292 yards, and touchdowns spanning 48, 51, and 90 yards.

Ra'Shaad Samples was originally a four-star Oklahoma State signee.

Courtney Lark is an incoming four-star, and the recruiting ratings for fellow freshmen Marquez Stevenson, Keith Corbin, and Terry Mark weren't far behind. [Update: Tight end Chris Johnson transferred to the Cougars from Baylor.]

However the hierarchy shakes down, there will be athletes all over the field, some of whom have already proven a little bit. Losing leader Demarcus Ayers hurts, but I'm far less worried about Houston's passing game than the running game.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 101.7 2.87 3.74 39.8% 66.1% 17.1% 87.8 5.8% 7.4%
Rank 65 69 21 54 63 27 80 83 64
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Alex Cooper LT 14 28 2015 2nd All-AAC
Ben Dew LG 3 16
Zach Johnson RT 3 14
Carter Wall RT 12 12
Colton Freeman RG 6'4, 300 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7633 11 11
Will Noble C 6'4, 290 So. NR 0.7685 8 8
Mason Denley LG 6'4, 305 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8260 7 7
Marcus Oliver LT 6'3, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8042 7 7
Kameron Eloph LG 6'3, 294 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8503 3 3
Damien Parris RT 1 2
Josh Thomas OL 6'6, 332 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8462 1 1
Mac Long C 6'4, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8463 0 0
Josh Jones OL 6'5, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8472

Na'Ty Rodgers OL 6'5, 292 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8950

Keenan Murphy OL 6'2, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8434

Braylon Jones OL 6'3, 278 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8378

Dixie Wooten OL 6'5, 322 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8326


SIGN UP FOR OUR COLLEGE FOOTBALL NEWSLETTER

Get all kinds of college football stories, rumors, game coverage, and Jim Harbaugh oddity in your inbox every day.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.26 71 IsoPPP+ 102.2 58
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.8% 41 Succ. Rt. + 100.0 67
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.2 39 Off. FP+ 30.0 62
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.0 30 Redzone S&P+ 107.1 40
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 28.1 ACTUAL 35.0 +6.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 53 59 67 58
RUSHING 8 29 50 21
PASSING 116 80 87 73
Standard Downs 67 74 71
Passing Downs 54 62 53
Q1 Rk 51 1st Down Rk 61
Q2 Rk 39 2nd Down Rk 52
Q3 Rk 38 3rd Down Rk 49
Q4 Rk 108

6. Good luck running

Opponents didn't even try to run. Despite playing quite a few either run-heavy or balanced opponents, Houston still faced run-pass ratios skewed toward the pass. Considering the alternative, that made sense.

The Cougars allowed only 10 rushes of 20-plus yards all season, 10th-fewest in FBS. Opponents averaged just 3.4 yards per carry on first down. Just as Houston's own run game tended to produce a lot of second-and-longs, so did opponents'. So they took to the air.

Houston allowed a 61 percent completion rate and a 141.8 passer rating on first downs, and if you could work your way into Houston territory, you could find your spots. Inside the UH 40, opponents completed 55 percent of their passes with 14 touchdowns to one interception.

Houston went for the jugular, though, and it was fun as hell to watch. Not only did they create consistently unfavorable field position, they attacked the pass when an opponent's goal line was nearby. Inside their own 40, opponents threw 12 interceptions. That's a recipe for quick Houston scores, even if it occasionally resulted in big completions, too.

The phenomenon should be about the same. The front seven might be even better than it was last year, but the secondary could be worse, resulting in either conservatism or more failed gambles.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 100.6 2.63 2.68 34.3% 73.7% 23.0% 89.2 5.8% 5.8%
Rank 58 29 18 27 105 26 83 39 92
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cameron Malveaux DE 6'6, 270 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7819 14 28.0 3.7% 8.5 2.5 0 3 0 0
Tomme Mark DE 14 27.5 3.6% 3.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nick Thurman DE 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8159 14 21.5 2.8% 5.0 0.5 0 1 0 0
B.J. Singleton DT 6'4, 314 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8592 14 15.5 2.1% 2.0 1.0 0 3 0 0
Jerard Carter DT 6'3, 297 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7926 13 10.0 1.3% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Chauntez Jackson DE 6'5, 280 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8463 4 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kameron Eloph DT
10 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Zorrell Ezell DT 6'1, 285 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8669
Zack Vaughan DE 6'4, 270 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429
D.J. Jenkins DE 6'2, 260 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8114
Ed Oliver DT 6'2, 290 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9968
Aymiel Fleming DT 6'2, 284 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8077
Hasaun Glasgow DE 6'3, 243 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8072








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Elandon Roberts ILB 14 115.0 15.2% 19.0 6.0 1 5 2 0
Steven Taylor OLB 6'1, 225 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7200 14 76.5 10.1% 18.5 10.0 2 3 2 0
Matthew Adams ILB 6'1, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8308 13 38.5 5.1% 2.5 2.0 0 0 0 0
Tyus Bowser OLB 6'3, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8311 14 38.5 5.1% 6.5 5.5 1 3 1 0
Emeke Egbule ILB 6'3, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826 14 10.0 1.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
D'Juan Hines ILB 6'1, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8287 13 9.5 1.3% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Cameron Doubenmier ILB 5'11, 220 Jr. NR NR 12 5.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Rasheed Tynes LB 5'11, 220 Sr. NR NR 8 5.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Davonte Thomas OLB 6'1, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8174
Ralph Harvey Jr. OLB 6'2, 245 Sr. NR NR
Ja'Von Shelley OLB 6'1, 230 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8023
Jordan Milburn LB 6'1, 225 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7956
Camden Ross LB 6'2, 245 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7926








7. Even better and deeper

Losing linebacker Elandon Roberts (drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots) tackle Tomme Mark hurts. Roberts was one of the most active defenders in the AAC, with 19 TFLs and six passes defensed, and replacing that production isn't guaranteed.

That said, when that's ALL you lose, outstanding depth can overpower a lost play-maker or two. Four of last year's five linemen are back (including run-stuffing ends Cameron Malveaux and Nick Thurman), as are five of the top six linebackers. There is still an attacking presence on the edge with Malveaux, Thurman, and OLBs Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, and while Roberts was a unique play-maker on the interior, juniors Matthew Adams and D'Juan Hines and sophomore Emeke Egbule were still in on quite a few plays.

And then there are the newcomers. According to 247, freshman tackle Ed Oliver was the sixth-best player in the class of 2016, regardless of position. He could become an immediate presence up front, and there are five other three-star freshmen and sophomores waiting for their turn. Despite losing Roberts, it is conceivable that Houston's run defense actually improves, and perhaps by quite a bit.

Opponents will be passing again, in other words.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Adrian McDonald SS 14 75.5 10.0% 3.5 1 4 2 2 1
Trevon Stewart FS 14 64.0 8.5% 10.5 6 4 2 1 0
Brandon Wilson CB 5'11, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8163 14 54.5 7.2% 2 0 1 8 2 1
Lee Hightower NB 14 43.5 5.8% 0 0 1 2 1 0
William Jackson III CB 13 38.5 5.1% 1.5 0 5 23 0 1
Jeremy Winchester CB 6'0, 190 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8391 13 15.0 2.0% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Khalil Williams NB 6'0, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8119 14 14.5 1.9% 1 0 1 4 0 0
Earl Foster S 14 6.0 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Garrett Davis S 6'1, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7985 13 5.5 0.7% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Tyler White CB 10 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Howard Wilson CB 6'1, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7906 3 5.0 0.7% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Joeal Williams CB 5'10, 185 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8030 7 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Austin Robinson
(UTSA)
S 6'3, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7926
Michael Eke S 6'2, 205 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7200
Terrell Williams S 6'3, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8257
J.J. Dallas S 6'0, 200 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8313
Collin Wilder DB 5'11, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8599
Patrick Rosette DB 6'1, 195 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8197
Ka'Darian Smith DB 6'0, 172 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8024
Javian Smith DB 6'1, 165 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7944

8. A new(ish) pass defense

The secondary got burned quite a bit, but for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who could be taking a head coaching job of his own soon, the risk-reward ratio was still positive. But that was with first-round pick William Jackson III, Adrian McDonald, Trevon Stewart, and Lee Hightower.

This foursome combined for an incredible 16.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 14 interceptions, 29 break-ups, and four forced fumbles. That sets the bar awfully high for a young secondary.

There are still exciting pieces, of course. Wilson added two TFLs and nine passes defensed; he could end up at Hightower's nickel position. Likely starting safeties Khalil Williams and Garrett davis got reps last year, and Williams defensed five passes from the nickel. Meanwhile, Howard Wilson returns from injury (he had three passes defensed in just three games), and sophomore Jeremy Winchester also saw time last year. And to assure some level of upperclassman presence, Herman brought in a pair of JUCO defensive backs: Terrell Williams and JJ Dallas.

So the secondary is inexperienced ... but not really. But there's still a difference between solid play-making and the level we saw last year. If a few more big-play attempts go awry and result in big completions, that skews the risk-reward balance quite a bit.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Logan Piper 64 40.4 3 23 20 67.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Ty Cummings 6'0, 185 Sr. 100 62.7 30 2 30.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Ty Cummings 6'0, 185 Sr. 51-51 7-7 100.0% 1-1 100.0%
Kyle Bullard 23-23 4-5 80.0% 1-4 25.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Brandon Wilson KR 5'11, 200 Sr. 23 26.6 2
Javin Webb KR 7 15.0 0
Demarcus Ayers PR 28 10.4 1
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 62
Field Goal Efficiency 74
Punt Return Success Rate 81
Kick Return Success Rate 86
Punt Success Rate 33
Kickoff Success Rate 49

9. The right pieces return

Turnovers played a large role in Houston's massive field position advantages in 2015, but at the least, special teams didn't hurt in that regard. But the strength of the unit was probably Logan Piper's high, unreturnable punts, and he's gone. That leaves kicker Ty Cummings (who was automatic inside of 40 yards but wasn't much for touchbacks on kickoffs) and all-or-nothing return man Brandon Wilson.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Oklahoma 4 -14.1 21%
10-Sep Lamar NR 29.5 96%
15-Sep at Cincinnati 70 -0.5 49%
24-Sep at Texas State 120 14.9 81%
29-Sep Connecticut 81 10.0 72%
8-Oct at Navy 66 -1.5 46%
15-Oct Tulsa 93 12.9 77%
22-Oct at SMU 98 7.6 67%
29-Oct Central Florida 99 14.9 80%
12-Nov Tulane 122 22.5 90%
17-Nov Louisville 20 -6.5 35%
25-Nov at Memphis 77 0.8 52%
Projected wins: 7.7
Five-Year F/+ Rk 9.4% (47)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 61 / 68
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 21 / 8.1
2015 TO Luck/Game +4.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (72%, 44%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 10.2 (2.8)

10. Two realistic paths

Despite what are sure to be lofty preseason rankings, it's not hard to see how this all goes wrong.

Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield takes advantage of a not-quite-ready secondary in the opener at NRG Stadium, Ward misses some drives in a key game (and this time, backup Kyle Postma isn't able to work a miracle comeback), and a few turnovers bounce the other way in a tricky set of AAC road games: Cincinnati, Navy, SMU, and Memphis.

Houston is going to be good. In 2016, something like a 9-3 record would be considered disappointing. This scenario plays out a lot in this sport, and it shouldn't a surprise that it's what the skeptical S&P+ ratings are projecting.

Still, it's also not hard to see this ending up like a Kansas State situation. Bill Snyder's Wildcats were lucky as hell and had no business going 10-3 in 2011; they finished 37th in S&P+ (and yes, I got yelled at a lot for that). But they stayed healthy in 2012, their senior quarterback took another step forward, and depth, experience, and confidence in tight situations moved the Wildcats forward. In 2013, KSU improved to 11-2 and sixth in S&P+.

Both options are on the table for Houston this year, and Herman's recruiting is certainly laying the groundwork for an extended run of quality.