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Houston has Ed Oliver, a friendly schedule, and a character risk

Major Applewhite will be perpetually in win-now mode at UH. And he’s got a chance to win now.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

it doesn’t take long to get used to having nice things.

Houston went 13-1 in 2015, then rose to sixth in the country with a 5-0 start in 2016. With head coach Tom Herman, five-star recruit Ed Oliver, and a roster full of athletes ready to make a statement, the Cougars were close to completely changing their lot in life.

The Big 12 was thinking about expanding, and Houston was probably better and on a more upward trajectory than any Big 12 team. Every national media outlet sent someone to write a feature on college football’s flavor of the month.

By the end of the 2016 season, though, Houston was merely a high-ceilinged Group of 5 team again. The Big 12 elected not to expand, and Herman left for Texas after road losses to Navy and SMU killed any hope of another New Year’s Six bowl.

In 2017, Houston was merely a solid AAC squad under former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. The Cougars lost a bunch of close games — 27-24 to Texas Tech, 42-38 to Memphis, 20-17 to Tulane, 33-27 to Fresno State — as teams with first-year head coaches often do.

Around the time Applewhite was hired, Houston’s president declared that winning eight games wasn’t going to be good enough. “The winning is defined at University of Houston as 10-2,” Renu Khator said. “We’ll fire coaches at 8-4.” Thankfully, there was some exaggeration there, but Applewhite did go 7-5. He faces more pressure than a second-year coach with a winning record usually does.

The offense includes an exciting quarterback — converted receiver D’Eriq King, UH’s leading returning passer, rusher, and receiver, and who increased Houston’s scoring average by 2.3 points per game (from 27.3 points per game to 29.6) when he took over late in the year — and a strong line.

The skill corps will get an unwanted reset following the loss of two leading receivers and the unexpected spring departure of running back Duke Catalon. But with star names, an experienced secondary, and another blue-chipper (Ole Miss transfer Deontay Anderson) potentially becoming eligible, UH enters 2018 with as much outright upside as anyone in the AAC. Former Baylor back Terence Williams could help replace Catalon’s production, and

Applewhite brought in Kendal Briles to run an offense that was pretty good in 2017 but evidently not good enough. On paper, this is a brilliant move. Briles is the son of one of Texas’ greatest offensive innovators, and in three seasons as an OC, he has produced two top-10 offenses, per S&P+ — No. 2 Baylor in 2015 and No. 6 FAU last year.

He’s also, of course, a Briles. His father allowed a culture of sexual assault to form under his watch at Baylor and got fired in 2016, becoming persona non grata in college football. Kendal was not found to be directly involved in any of the massive wrong-doing, but he was there, and it took Lane Kiffin not giving a damn what anyone thinks for Kendal to find employment in 2017. Houston’s hire earned the program criticism, including from sexual assault victim’s advocate Brenda Tracy, who spoke to the team.

So that’s the character risk.

Offense

It’s easy to think of Briles working with King, stop thinking, and decide it’s going to score a lot of points. And it very well could. After serving as a possession receiver (81 percent catch rate, 9.1 yards per catch) for much of the season, King went from part-time Wildcat QB to full-time QB against USF on October 28.

After a slow start that spanned six scoreless possessions, the Cougars ignited, scoring four touchdowns in seven second-half possessions against a good defense, and King’s 20-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds left announced a new era at QB. He threw for 330 yards the next week against ECU, then rushed for 141 and threw for 225 against Tulane. At 5’11, he’s got less-than-optimal size for a QB, obviously, but he was as efficient a passer as either of Houston’s two other QBs (Kyle Postma and Kyle Allen, both of whom have departed), and his running ability brings a fascinating extra weapon. And if he gets hurt, or UH wants to move him around a bit, Tennessee transfer Quinten Dormady could step in at QB.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Houston
D’Eriq King
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The skill corps around him is very unproven. With Catalon gone, the carries will go mostly to some combination of juniors Mulbah Car (4.9 yards per carry last year) and Patrick Carr (3.3) and Kevrin Justice (99 yards in the spring game, none yet in an actual game).

If there’s good news, it’s that Catalon only averaged 4.3 yards per carry and didn’t set the bar unattainably high. And the line, which did a solid job of preventing negative plays (21st in Adj. Sack Rate, 60th in stuff rate), returns those responsible for 36 of last year’s 60 starts and 94 career starts overall. Still, King’s insertion into the backfield didn’t help UH backs as much as we might have assumed — the Car/Catalon duo averaged just 2.7 yards per carry over the final three games of the season. Briles inherited a stud back in Devin Singletary at FAU; he probably won’t have the same at UH.

The receiving corps is even less proven. If we count King as a departed receiver, then the Cougars must replace last year’s top five targets. Steven Dunbar, Linell Bonner, John Leday, King, and Catalon accounted for 77 percent of targets, and the only two returnees with more than seven catches in 2017 are juniors Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin.

Now, Lark and Corbin were pretty awesome when given the opportunity. They combined for 399 yards on just 23 catches; their combined per-target average (9.7) easily trumped that of Dunbar and Bonner (9.2), and your per-target averages often remain reasonably steady as your responsibilities increase.

Still, that’s only two guys. UH will have to count on quite a few younger players to flesh out the receiving corps. Luckily, there’s upside. Between sophomore Marquez Stevenson, redshirt freshmen Jeremy Singleton and Parker Eichenberger (a tight end), and true freshmen Julon Williams and Ja’Kori Morgan, Houston has five young former mid-three-star recruits available to them, plus a bounty of low-three-star guys as well.

Briles has plenty of athleticism to work with. And we’ve seen that young, super-fast guys can find his rotation quickly: freshmen and sophomore receivers caught 78 passes for 1,266 yards at BU in 2015 and 153 for 2,074 in 2016.

Dormady aside, no one I just mentioned is a senior. The only final-year guys in the lineup will be center Will Noble, tight end Romello Brooker, and perhaps guard Mason Denley, a part-time starter in 2015-16. If this band stays together, then it could be pretty absurd in 2019.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Houston
Courtney Lark
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Houston defensive radar

Applewhite found an experienced hand to run his defense last year. Mark D’Onofrio came to town with 10 years of coordinator experience and 11 years of power-conference experience. His Miami defenses were always decent but rarely great, and we were left with a similar impression last year at UH.

For the most part, Houston was solid. The Cougars finished 49th in Def. S&P+, higher than what their recruiting rankings would project and higher than they ranked when they were making their big run in 2015 (63rd). But after surging to 25th in 2016, year one of Ed Oliver, any regression felt like a missed opportunity.

Houston basically played a bend-don’t-break 3-4 with a black hole in the middle. Oliver had 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, pretty much unheard-of disruption for a 3-4 lineman not named Aaron Donald. D’Onofrio varied where his fourth attacker was coming from — six different linebackers ended up with between four and 8.5 tackles for loss.

Still, this defense found its best self through big-play prevention and red zone strength.

Houston ranked just 71st in success rate but 19th in IsoPPP (an explosiveness measure that gauges the magnitude of the offense’s successful plays) and 10th in points allowed per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40).

They were somehow merely good against the run (35th in Rushing S&P+) and not great, which felt underwhelming given Oliver’s presence. But the Coogs got a bit of an upgrade when end Jerard Carter returned from a foot injury; they went from allowing 5.6 yards per play to 5.1 with Carter. He and sophomore Payton Turner are back, and four-star TCU transfer Isaiah Chambers joins the mix as well. This somewhat mitigates the loss of ends Reggie Chevis and Nick Thurman up front.

NCAA Football: Navy at Houston
Jerard Carter (52)
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Half of those six disruptive linebackers are back: OLBs Emeke Egbule and Leroy Godfrey and ILB Austin Robinson. Miami transfer Darrion Owens joins the two-deep as well. For any sort of depth, D’Onofrio needs some youngsters to step up, but sophomore David Anenih did have a pair of sacks among his 5.5 tackles, and there are some young former mid-three-stars in the mix.

The secondary could be dynamite, though, at least if a certain transfer is eligible.

Alabama v Mississippi
Deontay Anderson
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Houston’s pass defense was tremendous for the first half of the season.

  • Houston pass defense, first six games: 58% completion rate, 10.3 yards per completion, 108.3 passer rating
  • Houston pass defense, last seven games: 66% completion rate, 11.8 yards per completion, 133.5 passer rating

The cause of this regression isn’t immediately obvious. There were no major changes in the two-deep, and the sack rate actually improved. But Ole Miss transfer Anderson being declared eligible should be a big boost here.

A product of Manvel High School, Anderson was a top-60 recruit in the 2016 class and was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team that fall. With him and Notre Dame transfer corner Nick Watkins, UH should be able to account for the loss of a pretty good safety in Terrell Williams.

That, combined with the return of four seniors — safety Garrett Davis and corners Isaiah Johnson, Alexander Myres, and Joeal Williams — should assure a pretty high floor for the secondary.

Special Teams

Special teams was a strength, mostly because of punter Dane Roy, who ranked 22nd in the country in punt efficiency. He averaged only 41.8 yards per kick but gave up only 48 return yards all season. Kicker Caden Novikoff is solid, too, though UH needs a new set of return men following the loss of John Leday and Brandon McDowell.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Rice 128 15.8 82%
8-Sep Arizona 33 -3.2 43%
15-Sep at Texas Tech 47 -4.6 40%
22-Sep Texas Southern NR 47.9 100%
4-Oct Tulsa 108 13.8 79%
13-Oct at East Carolina 125 14.7 80%
20-Oct at Navy 85 2.9 57%
27-Oct USF 56 2.0 55%
3-Nov at SMU 74 0.5 51%
10-Nov Temple 81 6.5 65%
15-Nov Tulane 98 11.2 74%
23-Nov at Memphis 42 -5.5 38%
Projected S&P+ Rk 59
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 70 / 52
Projected wins 7.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.5 (46)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 70 / 71
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 1.3
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 51% (42%, 59%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (-0.6)

The upside is undeniable. Houston will have the best player in the conference (Oliver, who’s already declared for the 2019 draft), an exciting quarterback, and maybe the most effective offensive coordinator. And the Cougars’ two- and five-year recruiting rankings are right there with Cincinnati, UCF, and USF.

S&P+ projects UH to fall to 59th, mainly because of the extreme turnover in the skill corps. The defense is projected to stay the same, while the offense is projected to fall to 70th. I highly doubt that happens. But there’s a lot of pressure on that offense to produce.

Even with a conservative top-60 projection, the schedule sets itself up nicely for a big year. Houston is the projected favorite in nine of 12 games and is no more than a 5.5-point underdog in any game. If the Cougars overachieve those offensive projections, then a 10- or 11-win season is on the table.

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