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Major Applewhite faces immediate pressure at Houston. He probably likes it that way.

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Tennessee Tech v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

This preview originally published May 2 and has since been updated.

Major Applewhite certainly isn’t a stranger to the idea of subbing in for a star. He’s not even completely unfamiliar with doing it when Houston’s involved.

In 2000, as Texas’ incumbent starting quarterback, Applewhite faced stiff competition with golden-boy recruit Chris Simms to hold onto his job. After a frustrating loss to Stanford in Week 2, in which Applewhite threw two picks and took five sacks, Simms got the nod in Week 3 against Houston ... and proceeded to throw a pick in his first play and get sacked in his second.

Applewhite subbed in and went 13-for-21 as the Longhorns eased into blowout mode and won, 48-0. He would hold onto his starting job and throw for 2,164 yards until an injury against Texas Tech ended his starting tenure. Simms took over, looked great against Texas A&M (and less than great in a bowl loss), and became full-time starter the following spring.

After starting for parts of three seasons, Applewhite was relegated to the bench for most of his senior season. But with a BCS title game bid on the line, Simms struggled drastically in the Big 12 title game. Applewhite led a huge comeback; down 29-10 late in the second quarter, Texas rallied to fall, 39-37.

So you could say he’s used to pulling a program out of a skid when the star’s tenure doesn’t follow the script.

Tom Herman was supposed to be the guy who led Houston to the promised land. Everything he touched turned to gold in 2016 and early 2017. Houston was both good and lucky as hell in 2016, going 13-1 and enjoying a rousing Peach Bowl win over Florida State. He then signed the best recruiting class in the mid-major universe, inking, among other prospects, soon-to-be stud defensive tackle Ed Oliver. And in the summer months, it looked as if Houston was in prime position to land a spot in an expanding Big 12.

The Cougars began the season with another rousing, elite win — this time over eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma. All was right with the #HTownTakeover. But if you’re counting on the Big 12 to light your way forward, well, there’s a flaw in your plan. Suddenly Houston was too good to invite.

If the Longhorns won’t suffer for Houston’s inclusion, and state politics can convince the rest of Texas’ Big 12 members, the Cougars’ real problems are the member programs outside of the state who feast on Lone Star recruiting and exposure: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State. (West Virginia signs almost no recruits from the state of Texas.)

Sources at multiple candidate schools have told SB Nation that Houston’s growth potential could jeopardize UH’s bid to the Big 12.

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy spoke candidly about the situation to the Tulsa World last month: "Anyone that’s not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league," he reiterated.

Fast forward three months: the Big 12 elected not to expand (again), Houston’s College Football Playoff hopes were dashed by Navy, the Cougars lost twice more in conference play (via blowout at SMU and comeback at Memphis), and Herman took the open job at Texas. He was going to end up in the Big 12 regardless; it was just a question of whether Houston would come with him.

At Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, Steven Godfrey and I find ourselves frequently discussing the thought of emerging powers — who they might be, how they might form, etc. And a year ago, I found myself thinking of UH as a potential New Miami. Herman was making wonderful inroads in recruiting the state of Houston (as Howard Schnellenberger famously recruited the “state of Miami”), and the potential there would only grow if the Cougars found themselves in a power conference. To be sure, OSU and those other concerned Big 12 schools were right to be worried about Houston stealing their oxygen.

Of course, that’s exactly why Houston might have been a great choice. It looked like the Big 12 might actually be able to pull off adding a major national program — something that hasn’t been an option since the 2010 and 2011 rounds of conference realignment. Only, it would have been one that it created. Instead, short-term self interest from second-tier conference programs won out. Self interest always wins out in the Big 12.

So now, Houston goes back to simply trying to be an AAC West power. It won’t be easy. Memphis is stacked. Tulsa is explosive. Navy is Navy. SMU is rising. Applewhite faces Herman-level expectations, only without Herman’s star pupil (quarterback Greg Ward Jr.) or star defensive coordinator (Todd Orlando). He’s down 39-10; will he come out firing?


2016 in review

2016 Houston statistical profile.

The gist of my 2016 Houston preview: Herman’s Cougars were probably not as good as their record in 2015 and could both a) improve and b) suffer a couple of unexpected losses as the universe rights itself.

Check and check. In terms of S&P+, Houston improved from 44th to 39th. The offense had to replace its top three running backs and four experienced pieces up front, and the run game cratered. The defense surged from 59th to 25th in Def. S&P+, but the offense sank from 29th to 69th.

Of course, those are yearlong averages. For the most part, Houston looked the part of a true contender until the Navy game threw everything off-script.

  • First 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 76% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: UH 5.9, Opp 4.4 (plus-1.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-22.6 PPG
  • Last 8 games (4-4): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (~top 60) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.0, UH 5.0 (plus-0.0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-10.8 PPG

Moving the ball became a labor as the year went on and Ward took more and more of a beating. The run game was nonexistent, and after producing a passer rating of 166.2 during UH’s 5-0 start, Ward hit just 131.2 the rest of the year. His completion rate fell from 71 percent to 67, and his interception rate rose from 1.4 percent to 3.3. He was asked to do too much, the offense stalled out more, and the defense eventually stuttered.

Aside from an inspired massacre of Louisville, the last half of the season was pretty directionless for the Cougars, as if everyone involved knew where things were headed once the Big 12 didn’t expand and the CFP was no longer in sights.


Offense

Houston offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Safe to say, Ward was the 2016 Houston offense. He completed a high percentage of passes on standard downs and scrambled to move the chains on passing downs. He had a nice receiving corps at his disposal, but it was asked to do too much to account for a miserable run game.

Despite Ward’s reputation as mainly a rushing quarterback, Houston ranked 45th in Passing S&P+ and 91st in Rushing S&P+ last year. Four Cougar running backs — Texas transfer Duke Catalon, Dillon Birden, and freshmen Mulbah Car and Kevrin Justice — combined to average a wretched 4 yards per carry, and even with his scrambling ability, Ward averaged just 4.5 sans sacks.

The running backs weren’t ready, and the offensive line was starting a new lineup each week. All told, nine different linemen started at least four games, and only one started all 13. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before. Your run game has no chance in that situation.

For better or worse, it’s a fresh start in 2017. Ward’s gone, and Applewhite has moved to a bigger office. He brought in former Utah offensive coordinator and Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to lead his offense, and he has Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen behind center.

Texas A&M v Vanderbilt
Kyle Allen
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

You could certainly do worse than having Applewhite and Johnson as your mentors. Applewhite helped to turn Ward into a stronger passer than he got credit for, and Johnson spent the last three seasons watching over Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at MSU. Allen still has some work to do to win the job, but assuming he holds off injured senior Kyle Postma, injured sophomore D’Eriq King (injuries were an issue for UH this spring), and walk-on Mason McClendon for the job, he would take over a passing game that has some exciting weapons.

Linell Bonner might have been the best possession receiver in the country last year; the 6’0 senior caught 73 percent of his passes with a 56 percent success rate; granted, he only averaged 11.4 yards per catch, but he is incredibly reliable, and fellow senior Steven Dunbar has had his moments — seven catches for 125 yards against Oklahoma last year, nine for 112 against Navy.

Beyond Bonner and Dunbar, a host of youngsters and former star recruits are lining up for a shot, namely sophomores Courtney Lark (a former four-star guy), Keith Corbin, Terry Mark, and Marquez Stevenson, and incoming freshmen Jeremy Singleton, Tre’Von Bradley, and Devodric Bynum. [Update: UH also added Ellis Jefferson, who played in 38 games for Arizona State.] As good as Bonner and Dunbar are, if this batch could produce a big-play threat or two, the ceiling for this offense gets a lot higher.

Allen was not a blue-chip caliber success at Texas A&M; during his sophomore season in 2015, he completed just 57 percent of his passes with a 137 passer rating. He was certainly solid, but he still has quite a bit to prove. And the improvement of the run game could determine whether he gets to prove it.

It won’t get worse. Catalon, Birden, Car, and Justice all return, as do eight of the nine starters up front. [Update: UH also adds grad transfer interior lineman Deon Mix from Auburn, where he played in six games.] Plus, the Cougars get the services of Colorado transfer Patrick Carr in the backfield, as well; he was the star of the spring game.

There’s reason to be concerned about the offense: it trailed off dramatically last year, and there’s no guarantee that the pieces in the run game have the pure talent to post big averages. But the passing game should at least assure that the offense as a whole doesn’t regress further. We’ll just have to see if it improves. My guess is it will.

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy
Linell Bonner
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Houston defensive radar

Lost amid the disappointment of the offense and the late-season losses was the fact that the Cougars’ defense was really, really good.

Improvement wasn’t a given considering the Cougars had to replace four of their top five tacklers in the secondary (and that turnover in the secondary is a harbinger of regression). But a mix of veterans (senior corners Howard Wilson and Brandon Wilson, junior safeties Khalil Williams and Terrell Williams) and exciting youngsters (sophomores Garrett Davis and Jeremy Winchester, freshmen Collin Wilder and Javian Smith) produced an acceptable recipe in the back. Houston didn’t pick off nearly as many passes — hello, turnovers luck — but did produce a Passing S&P+ ranking of 34th.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the run defense was absolutely dynamite. That was nearly a given. Houston ranked 29th in Rushing S&P+ in 2015, returned five of six linemen and five of six linebackers, and added maybe the best freshman in the country to the mix.

Ed Oliver more than lived up to his blue-chip billing out of the gates. Not only was he third in the country with 22.5 tackles for loss — as a damn freshman — but he was also fourth on the team in tackles. He made more stops than all but one defensive back on the team. That’s crazy. That’s a combination of play-making and sideline-to-sideline motor that you almost never see.

NCAA Football: Texas Kickoff-Oklahoma vs Houston
Ed Oliver
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Applewhite tasked Mark D’Onofrio with succeeding the immensely successful Todd Orlando (who was also a candidate for the head coaching gig) as defensive coordinator. From 2006-15, D’Onofrio served as Al Golden’s defensive coordinator at Temple and Miami; he only had one excellent defense (his 2014 Miami unit was 25th in Def. S&P+), but each of his last nine defenses ranked at least 70th. It’s hard to know about upside, but he should be a solid caretaker if nothing else.

Of course, Oliver might be the best defender he’s coached, and Oliver’s got a lot of help. Houston returns five of seven linemen and four of six linebackers. Granted, the four departures — ends Cameron Malveaux and B.J. Singleton, linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser — were all strong. Taylor and Bowser combined for 24 tackles for loss.

Still, there’s experience here, and in star freshmen Bryan Jones (end) and Arnaud Willis-Dalton (linebacker), among others, Houston has plenty of young upside up front. UH might find it difficult to replicate last year’s No. 5 Rushing S&P+ ranking, but the run defense should again be as good as any in the AAC. [Update: Houston’s DL also added former seven-game Miami starter Courtel Jenkins and 17-game Texas A&M contributor Reggie Chevis.]

If the run defense doesn’t regress much, Houston’s defense should again be excellent because the pass defense certainly shouldn’t regress. The Wilsons are gone, but that’s it. Davis and Khalil Williams combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and eight breakups in 2016, and Winchester is a burgeoning star. Granted, be it a sophomore like Javian Smith or Ka’Darian Smith or converted receiver Isaiah Johnson, the other cornerback spot will be filled by someone far less experienced than either Wilson. But the upside here is obvious.

I would be shocked if this wasn’t, at worst, a top-40 defense. And with Oliver as center of gravity, a ranking quite a bit higher is almost to be expected.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at Houston
Khalil Williams (2)
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Applewhite has to remodel the offense in Herman’s absence, but he was left some goodies on defense and in special teams. The Cougars ranked 29th in Special Teams S&P+ last year, powered by a No. 12 ranking in kick return success rate and a No. 33 ranking in punt success rate.

Brandon Wilson had a role to play in kick returns, but assuming D’Eriq King isn’t the starting QB, he is a hell of a KR. And as a freshman, Dane Roy’s punts were among the least returnable in the country. That’s a good starting point, though Houston does have to replace Wilson and place-kicker Ty Cummings.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at UTSA 91 9.0 70%
9-Sep at Arizona 68 0.2 50%
16-Sep Rice 120 21.1 89%
23-Sep Texas Tech 66 4.6 60%
30-Sep at Temple 67 0.1 50%
7-Oct SMU 81 11.8 75%
14-Oct at Tulsa 77 4.4 60%
19-Oct Memphis 61 3.9 59%
28-Oct East Carolina 100 16.1 82%
4-Nov at South Florida 56 -1.6 46%
18-Nov at Tulane 94 10.0 72%
24-Nov Navy 71 7.9 68%
Projected S&P+ Rk 49
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 73 / 31
Projected wins 7.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.3 (57)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 56 / 70
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / 1.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -3.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 55% (51%, 58%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.8 (0.2)

I’m going on faith that when Houston’s president says the school could fire a coach for going 8-4, the Cougars aren’t actually going to fire a coach for going 8-4. I’m all for aggressiveness and confidence, but damn.

Among other things, Tom Herman himself might have struggled to do better than 8-4 or 9-3 this coming year. Projected 49th in S&P+, the Cougars are given a 46 percent or better chance in every game on the schedule, but six are tossups between 46 and 60 percent and eight are projected with a single-digit margin.

In other words, a little bit of improvement or regression will go a long, long way. If Allen and the redesigned offense click (certainly a realistic possibility) and the defense maintains a top 30 level (ditto), this is a 10- or 11-win team.

Meanwhile, if the run game is still stagnant, Allen is throwing on passing downs a lot (and without Ward’s wheels to get him out of trouble), and loss of play-makers at linebacker or cornerback is more costly than I’m guessing — all of this is also at least semi-realistic — then you’re looking at something closer to 7-5.

Applewhite enters a situation under immediate pressure to overachieve, but really, I guess that’s probably just the way he likes it.


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