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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

New-Look Roster Meets New-Look Staff

Houston needed to score 40 points in the TicketCity Bowl. Not to win, mind you; Houston needed to score only 14 points to beat unfocused Penn State, which seemed to be going through the motions in Dallas, clearly wanting the season to end as soon as possible, not surprisingly. The Cougars needed to score 40 points to join a rather exclusive club: With another 40-point outburst — a total the Cougars reached nine times during the regular season — Houston would have joined Nebraska as the only F.B.S. program to average at least 50 points per game twice in its history. Houston had already been there once, when led by Heisman-winning quarterback Andre Ware in 1989.

More records stood within Houston’s grasp heading into bowl play. With another 613 yards on offense, the Cougars would have become the second team in F.B.S. history to average 600 yards of total offense per game. The first team, again, was the Ware-led Cougars in 1989.

To break that team’s single-season F.B.S. record, the Cougars would have needed to gain 977 yards of offense against the Nittany Lions. Not possible… but if any team could have ripped through Penn State for just shy of a 1,000 yards of total offense, it was the Cougars.

As it turned out, Houston scored 30 points on the Nittany Lions. That left the Cougars averaging 49.3 points per game, the best mark in the country but less than one point shy of the half-century mark. Houston gained only — only! — 600 yards of total offense in the 30-14 bowl win, leaving it with the close-but-no-cigar season average of 599.1 yards per game.

The numbers are staggering on a team-wide and individual level. Case Keenum owns the following F.B.S. career records: total offense, passing yards, touchdowns responsible for, touchdown passes and completions. Receivers Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards caught at least one pass in every game of their college careers; Carrier’s 53-game streak is one shy of former Central Michigan wide receiver Bryan Anderson’s F.B.S. record.

It’s time to take stock of just how impressive Houston was last fall, when the Cougars won a program record 13 games, because those days are over. Not gone — there’s every reason to think the Cougars can again make a B.C.S. run in the future — but over: Houston, perhaps more than any other team in the country, will have a different look in 2012.

Keenum has exhausted his eligibility after four-plus seasons. Carrier and Edwards are gone, as are fellow starting receivers Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith. Center Chris Thompson, the backbone of an otherwise untested front, leaves U.H. with a gaping hole in the middle of the offensive line. The offense must also replace running backs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes; Beall is one of the finest backs in school history.

The defense, which was so drastically improved in 2011, must replace middle linebacker Marcus McGraw, the second-most prolific tackler in school history. No McGraw, and no weak side linebacker Sammy Brown, who had 50 tackles for loss over his final two seasons — including an F.B.S.-best 30 as a senior. Also gone: David Hunter, a multiple-year contributor at end, and strong safety Nick Saenz, though the latter split time last fall with former Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia.

Tony Levine, the interim coach for the TicketCity Bowl, was named as Kevin Sumlin’s permanent replacement. He was able to retain three defensive coaches, including former linebackers coach Jamie Bryant, who is now Houston’s defensive coordinator. However, Houston will have an entirely new group of offensive assistants.

It’s a new-look roster with a new-look staff. Promoting Levine from within will aid Houston’s quest for continuity, but there will be a steep learning curve for the Cougars as they prepare for September. This makes spring drills, which begin on March 21, vital for the program: Seeing that Houston wants to maintain its current pace, not having the team and coaching staff on the same page by the time fall camp rolls around simply isn’t an option.

No player-coach relationship will be more vital than the one between new offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt and redshirt sophomore quarterback David Piland, who started eight games as a true freshman in 2010. Nesbitt’s well-versed in the Air Raid, having served as the coordinator at Stephen F. Austin in 2010 and West Texas A&M in 2009, which makes him a fine replacement for Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips, last year’s co-coordinators.

If the offense hopes to remain Conference USA’s most prolific — especially with Southern Mississippi due to take a step back — Piland and Nesbitt need to connect from the start. Offense wins games for Houston. Offense also sells: The top 11 home crowds in Robertson Stadium history have come over the last three seasons.

Each has potential; Piland impressed after being thrown into starting duties, and Nesbitt’s offenses over the last two seasons ranked among the best on the F.C.S. level. West Texas A&M finished second in the F.C.S. in scoring in 2010. Despite breaking in a new starting quarterback last fall, S.F.A. averaged 36.3 points and 439.4 yards of total offense per game.

The two have to develop a rapport during the spring. There are other positions of concern offensively, but in the Air Raid offense, strong quarterback play has a trickle-down effect: if Piland plays well, his receivers play well, and the passing game hums; if the passing game hums, holes open for running back Charles Sims; if the passing game and running game are working in concert, Houston will suffer little decline whatsoever offensively.

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  1. rudi says:

    “Texas A&M finished second in the F.C.S. in scoring in 2010.” Oh how I wish it was true.

    Paul: I have always had issues with directions. Fixing above, thanks. And A&M would have been first in the F.C.S. in scoring.

  2. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    Nice article. Looking ahead, Houston returns:

    * 18 of 22 on the 2-deep defense + 2010 starting LB Efrem Oliphant who missed 2011 with injury

    * The Punter, FG Kicker, Snapper and Holder on special teams

    * 9 of 10 on the 2-deep OL

    * All C-USA RB Sims

    The two big questions this Spring are:

    1. Who wins the QB job? Piland has the edge in experience. RS Frosh Bram Kolhausen is very talented.

    2. Who emerges at WR? As you note, we lost all 4 WRs. It’s wide open. This is one of the reasons we were able to sign the Greenberry kid away from Notre Dame.

    The schedule sets up very nicely in 2012 for UH. 9 games in Texas, 8 in Houston, and 7 at Robertson Stadium. No back to back road games.

    Against C-USA West, Houston plays UTEP, Tulane and Tulsa at home, Rice at Reliant Stadium, and SMU in Dallas. If Houston can go 5-0 against the West, it holds the tiebreaker on everyone and will likely play for the C-USA title again.

  3. NTXCoog says:

    Nice article. Is Houston going to get a Year In Review post?

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