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At Houston, Holgo could have his best-ever offense (and worst-ever defense)

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The former WVU head coach should restore the Cougars’ swagger ... eventually.

Dana Holgorsen
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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

Let’s step back and recap Houston’s recent history.

  1. Under first-year Tom Herman, UH goes 13-1 in 2015, rolling to the AAC title and beating three power-conference opponents (Louisville, Vanderbilt, and No. 9 Florida State).
  2. Herman signs a top-40 recruiting class, virtually unheard of for a team outside of the power conferences. Herman rounds up a good portion of the high-end talent within the city, including defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the No. 6 overall prospect in the country.
  3. The Coogs begin 2016 ranked 15th in the AP poll and move to sixth with a 33-23 win over Baker Mayfield and No. 3 Oklahoma in Week 1.
  4. All the while, the Big 12 has been going through another round of “Maybe we should expand?” Houston is considered a front-runner. The primary argument against UH: the Cougars might be too good and dominating Houston recruiting a bit too much.
  5. The Big 12 decides not to expand (and in the most self-conscious way possible), all but assuring UH will lose Herman. He ends up at Texas.
  6. UH elects to carry itself like a P5 program all the same. That means finding a big-time basketball coach and paying big to keep him when he reaches the Sweet 16. It also, apparently, means setting a really high bar for football. Upon promoting Herman’s offensive coordinator, Major Applewhite, school president Renu Khator says (maybe jokingly?), “winning is defined at University of Houston as 10-2. We’ll fire coaches at 8-4.”
  7. Applewhite goes 15-11. UH gets bombed by San Diego State to finish 2016 in Herman’s absence, then loses three of five in the middle of 2017 to sully a 4-1 start. The Cougars begin 2018 at 7-1 with a resurgent offense and reach 17th in the AP poll following a blowout of No. 21 USF. But Oliver gets hurt, and they lose three of four to end the regular season. The school that would “fire coaches at 8-4” goes 8-4, and, on top of that, Applewhite and Oliver have an ugly-for-everyone argument on the sidelines (over a jacket, no less) during the only win in that span.
  8. With Oliver going pro and program buzz fading, UH gets humiliated by Army, 70-14, in the Armed Forces Bowl. Applewhite is fired.
  9. In a further attempt to act like a P5 school, UH replaces him with an active P5 head coach, WVU’s Holgorsen. They pay him like a P5, too.

Getting fired after two above-.500 seasons is rare, but Houston is, if nothing else, in a rare spot. It has a recruiting backyard almost every other school dreams of, and while we have no idea how a potential mid-2020s round of conference realignment might go, Houston remains at or near the top of the list for a potential promotion ... if it has its football act together, anyway.

One of the original Sons of Air Raid, Holgorsen was a receiver for Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan in the early-1990s, then coached for Mike Leach for eight seasons at Texas Tech. He served two seasons as UH’s offensive coordinator and one as Oklahoma State’s before landing at West Virginia in 2011. His first WVU team won the Big East and the Orange Bowl, and he won seven or more games for five straight seasons to end his time in Morgantown.

WVU struggled to stand out (in a non-geographic manner, anyway) within the Big 12. The Mountaineers were always strong and appeared close to a breakthrough but always suffered the one loss or the one injury that they couldn’t.

The bar is a bit lower in the AAC — WVU’s No. 24 S&P+ ranking in 2018 was third in the Big 12 but would have damn near been first in the American — but it’s still high at UH. Holgorsen’s got a lot of Herman’s swagger, and he inherits an absolutely loaded offense. (The defense: far less loaded.) With six games projected with a win probability between 36 and 61 percent, his first season at TDECU Stadium could go in a lot of different directions.

If nothing else, Houston hasn’t been boring. That probably isn’t going to change with Holgorsen running the show.

Offense

Applewhite controversially hired Kendal Briles to help turn his offense around in 2018, and Briles succeeded. (On the field, he always does.)

If quarterback D’Eriq King hadn’t missed the last two games, he’d have had a chance at producing both 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 non-sack rushing yards. He’s terrifying with his legs and good enough with his arm to complete 64 percent of his passes with a 36-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Houston
D’Eriq King
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Virtually his entire skill corps is back, too. That includes 1,000-yard receiver Marquez Stevenson and a fun supporting cast of seniors Keith Corbin and Courtney Lark (combined: 75 catches, 1,230 yards, 15 touchdowns), a truckload of athletic redshirt freshmen and sophomores (the most exciting of the bunch: Jeremy Singleton and Julon Williams), and some efficient, if not particularly explosive, running backs like seniors Patrick Carr and Mulbah Car. (He also has Texas transfer Kyle Porter, who wasn’t at all efficient but looks the part.)

Holgorsen and co-coordinators Marquel Blackwell and Brandon Jones have the pieces to deploy whatever style they choose. Holgorsen’s last couple of WVU offenses were piloted by quarterback Will Grier and were therefore extremely pass-heavy, but he’s shown he has no problem incorporating the run game quite a bit if it benefits him. With King’s legs, it would benefit him.

WVU slowed down to merely an above-average tempo in recent years, but with Briles, the Cougars operated at mach speed (second nationally in adjusted pace) last fall. Since Holgorsen’s personnel is so well-suited for it, we’ll see if he chooses to hit the gas.

NCAA Football: Temple at Houston
Marquez Stevenson
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Houston’s line was solid in 2018 — 40th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 44th in sack rate (pretty good for having such a mobile quarterback) — but, in guard Mason Denley and center Will Noble, UH must replace two starters who had combined for 69 career starts. Three seniors with 81 career starts return, so the line isn’t a dire concern, but it’s maybe the least proven unit heading into 2019.

The biggest question for this offense might simply be, what happens if or when King gets hurt? Houston has benefited dramatically from mobile quarterbacks in recent years — Greg Ward Jr. was terrifying under Herman, but Ward was banged up and missed part of 2016, and King was hurt in 2018. Houston’s offense collapsed in King’s absence.

Though mobile, backup Clayton Tune wasn’t nearly as efficient with his arm. Granted, he was a freshman and could improve, but Tune, part-time WR Bryson Smith, two-star sophomore Ike Ogbogu, and Coach’s Son Logan Holgorsen are the only non-King options.

Defense

Houston was mostly hopeless without King because the defense had no hope of picking up slack. The Cougars were only 73rd in Def. S&P+ when Oliver got hurt — well off of the No. 27 pace they set back in 2016, Oliver’s freshman season — and they utterly collapsed without him. They ended up 106th in Def. S&P+, their worst mark since ranking 113th in 2003.

Granted, replacing members of a terribly disappointing defense is easier than replacing difference-makers on an elite unit, but either way, Houston’s got a ton to replace, and the list doesn’t end with Oliver. It also includes last year’s top three linebackers (including Austin Robinson who had 14 tackles for loss, six sacks, and five passes defensed), top three cornerbacks, top nickel back, and top defensive end.

Thanks to iffy returning production figures, Houston’s projected Def. S&P+ ranking is just 118th. That would be their worst ranking since 1975. With basic competence at cornerback, however, I doubt it gets anywhere near that bad.

Tulsa v Houston
David Anenih (12)
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

New coordinator Joe Cauthen comes from Arkansas State, where he crafted a series of defenses that punched above their weight class. His 2016 defense ranked 26th in Def. S&P+, and the Red Wolves were still an extremely respectable 62nd in 2018.

ASU lived to create chaos up front — 11th in stuff rate, 12th in sack rate, 14th in havoc rate — and while that gets harder in Oliver’s absence, Cauthen does inherit a few play-makers.

End Isaiah Chambers logged six TFLs and 4.5 sacks in just five games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. OLBs Leroy Godfrey and David Anenih combined for 12 tackles for loss, four sacks (all from Anenih), and 14.5 run stuffs. Tackle Payton Turner has his moments, and sophomores Logan Hall (DE) and Derek Parish (LB) flashed potential in limited action. Holgorsen also added three JUCOs to the mix.

That’s a start, at least.

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy
Deontay Anderson (2) and Gleson Sprewell (21)
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an obvious risk-reward balance with trying to attack up front: you could get gashed royally in the back. ASU ranked a healthy 33rd in marginal efficiency last year but came in 116th in marginal explosiveness — the Red Wolves didn’t get burned often, but when they did, they got burned.

In theory, the Coogs have a pair of safeties who can limit burn damage. They can occasionally make some plays, too. Juniors Gleson Sprewell and Deontay Anderson (a former blue-chipper from Ole Miss) combined for 6.5 TFLs, six run stuffs, four INTs, and 11 pass breakups last year. Junior nickel Grant Stuard showed strength near the line of scrimmage, too.

Whether the safeties are actually allowed to roam near the line will depend on the cornerbacks, and ... yikes. Javian Smith is your leading returning tackler there, and he had three tackles in 2018. Ka’Darian Smith had 2.5. Holgorsen added some potentially big-time transfers in Texas A&M’s Jordan Moore, Troy’s Marcus Jones, and Oklahoma State’s Thabo Mwaniki. The problem is that, while you never really know what the NCAA’s Wheel of Transfer Destiny will say, it’s possible none will be eligible until 2020. So it could be dire at corner for a bit.

Special Teams

After three straight years with a top-30 Special Teams S&P+ ranking, UH fell back to 47th last fall. Not great, not terrible. Punter Dane Roy is ultra-efficient, and Bryson Smith has potential as a return man, but place-kicker Dalton Witherspoon (78th in FG efficiency) has something to prove.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Oklahoma 5 -27.2 6%
7-Sep Prairie View A&M NR 32.6 97%
13-Sep Washington State 36 -6.1 36%
19-Sep at Tulane 98 5.0 61%
28-Sep at North Texas 84 -0.2 50%
12-Oct Cincinnati 44 -4.3 40%
19-Oct at Connecticut 129 22.5 90%
24-Oct SMU 85 5.0 61%
2-Nov at UCF 27 -13.9 21%
16-Nov Memphis 26 -9.5 29%
23-Nov at Tulsa 95 3.8 59%
30-Nov Navy 118 19.1 86%
Projected S&P+ Rk 73
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 11 / 118
Projected wins 6.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.4 (46)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 74
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 2.8
2018 TO Luck/Game +0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (82%, 39%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.1 (-0.1)

It’s been a hectic few years. Call it a hunch, but I’m betting Holgorsen makes it more than Applewhite’s two years, at least. He’s got the swagger Houston desires, and the potential for this program moving forward is obvious.

Houston won’t be a P5 program any time soon, but Holgo’s going to recruit among the best in the AAC, and he’s got all the offensive chops you could ask for. (I love the Cauthen hire, too.)

It’s hard to say how Year One is going to go, though. Holgorsen never had a defense that ranked worse than 76th in Def. S&P+ at WVU. If Houston hits even that low mark in 2019, the Cougars could become AAC West favorites. The offense is loaded and exciting, but the defense, with iffy depth in the front seven and a smoking crater at cornerback, will determine whether the goal is 10-2 or 7-5.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.