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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 23: Houston

Houston had success at the Astrodome, but is writing new history under Kevin Sumlin.

Welcome to Clutch City, at least on offense. Until Houston puts forth a better defense, however, we’ll be seeing more of the same: more wins than losses, of course, but a handful of disappointing setbacks each season thanks a group that simply can’t, won’t get stops. In Houston’s four losses: 58 points allowed against UTEP, 37 against U.C.F., 38 against East Carolina and 47 against Air Force. Until this changes, well, the Cougars will remain the best team in Conference USA, but they’re not a viable member of the B.C.S. conversation. Say hello to Brian Stewart, Houston’s new defensive coordinator — and the man tasked with leading this defense to the next level.

Conference USA, West



Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 30

2009 record
(10-4, 6-2)

Last year’s

No. 26

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Texas St.
  • Sept. 10
  • Sept. 18
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 25
  • Oct. 9
    Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Rice
  • Oct. 23
    at S.M.U.
  • Oct. 30
    at Memphis
  • Nov. 5
  • Nov. 13
  • Nov. 20
    at Southern Miss
  • Nov. 27
    at Texas Tech

Last year’s prediction

I have high hopes for the Cougars, who have a strong enough offense to carry it to the Conference USA crown. Only my issues with the defense prevent me from putting the Cougars in the Top 25, though I would not be surprised if the team wins enough games to end the season in the 22 to 25 range. But here’s the concern: I don’t believe Houston has the horses to stop many teams, either. That will keep the Cougars from being more than a dark horse contender to break into the B.C.S., though I still am confident this deficiency will not prevent U.H. from winning as many as 10 games and the Conference USA title. My final prediction is a 9-3 finish, with a win in the conference championship game catapulting a still-young squad to even greater heights in 2010.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Houston stormed out of the gate, beating then-No. 5 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in successive weeks in mid-September and vaulting itself into the national conversation. A few stumbles marred Houston’s B.C.S. hopes – an ugly loss to UTEP, a loss in the conference championship – yet the Cougars maintained enough focus to land a second 10-win season in four years, and the first for the second-year coach Kevin Sumlin. Could Houston have done even better, achieved even more? Without question – and Sumlin would be the first to tell you so. His team suffered its fair share of mental lapses, such as that ugly UTEP setback, but also struggled with a defense prone to allowing just enough points to ensure a victory. The Cougars finished the season ranked 111th in total defense (451.3 yards per game) and 95th in scoring (30.1 points per game), totals that would have doomed a lesser team. Fortunately, Houston could score on anyone, often at will. Yet for this team to reach even greater heights, it must rededicate itself to getting stops on the defense side of the ball.

High point Wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in September. Fans had dreams of busting into the B.C.S., and rightfully so. The Cougars trailed in the fourth quarter in each game – as late as with a minute left against Tech. An Oct. 23 win over S.M.U. ended up being the deciding victory in the race for the Conference USA West division.

Low point A nearly inexplicable loss to UTEP, which came on the heels of those back-to-back wins against Big 12 opposition. After being tied at 17-17 at the half, Houston allowed UTEP to score 41 points – 20 in the third, 21 in the fourth – in the final 30 minutes. U.H. also ended the season poorly, dropping the conference championship game to E.C.U. and the Armed Forces Bowl to Air Force.

Tidbit Of the top 10 scoring offenses in the F.B.S. last fall, only two finished in the bottom half of the country in scoring defense: Houston (95th) and Nevada (86th). Another two didn’t crack the top 50: Arkansas (58th) and Oregon (51st). Four teams ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense and the top 15 in scoring defense: Florida (10th in offense, 4th on defense), T.C.U. (6th and 6th), Texas (3rd and 12th) and Boise State (1st and 14th). There goes the theory that high-scoring offenses – which, by and large, are quick-strike in their execution – are prone to allowing crooked numbers on defense.

Tidbit (schedule edition) How did Hawaii break into the B.C.S. in 2007? Like Houston, it did so with an explosive offense — and a stellar defense, which Houston doesn’t have, of course. Hawaii also had an easy non-conference schedule that fall, something Houston does not share with the Warriors in 2010. In Hawaii’s run, it played Northern Colorado, U.N.L.V., Charleston Southern — that’s two F.C.S. teams — and Washington outside of WAC play. This fall, Houston will face Texas State, U.C.L.A., Mississippi State and Texas Tech outside of Conference USA action.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 RB Anthony Alridge (Washington), WR Donnie Avery (St. Louis), RB Jackie Battle (Kansas City), LS Thomas Gafford (Kansas City), OG Rex Hadnot (Arizona), QB Kevin Kolb (Philadelphia), TE Fendi Onobun (St. Louis), CB Stanford Routt (Oakland), OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Houston’s nicknames
1. Space City.
2. Clutch City.
3. Hustletown.
4. Magnolia City.
5. Capital of the Sunbelt.


Kevin Sumlin (Purdue ’86), 18-9 after two season with the Cougars. While he has been nothing short of superb at Houston, in some ways, Sumlin inherited a difficult situation. Yes, this team had a fine level of returning talent, but it had lost a number of key players on both sides of the ball. In addition, Sumlin was replacing the very popular – and successful – Art Briles, who rebuilt a downtrodden U.H. program into one of Conference USA’s best programs. Sumlin responded, however, and after his two seasons, I have no doubt that U.H. is a program very much looking like the future of the conference – as long as Sumlin turns down overtures from major B.C.S. programs aiming for his services. Houston marks Sumlin’s first head coaching job after 20 years as an assistant at six different F.B.S. programs. His latest stop was at Oklahoma, where he served first as the special teams and tight ends coach from 2003-4 before graduating to the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach from 2006-7. The Sooners won at least 11 games four times over his five-year stint under Bob Stoops. Sumlin also played a key role in Oklahoma’s always strong recruiting, especially in – you guessed it – the Houston area. Though an all-Big Ten linebacker with the Boilermakers, Sumlin has made his living on the offensive side of the ball; at each of his other coaching stops (Wyoming 1991-92, Minnesota 1993-97, Purdue 1998-2001, Texas A&M 2001-2) he has dealt with the receivers or quarterbacks. The closest he had come to a head coaching position was with the Aggies, where he served as the assistant head coach. This extensive experienced served Sumlin well at Houston, and places him on the list of coaches to watch in the non-B.C.S. conferences. With the amount of talent returning on the offensive side of the ball, Sumlin should continue to be successful at Houston.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The time had come for Houston to cut ties with defensive coordinator John Skladany, whose defense had little to do with Houston’s 10 wins, much to do with its four losses. Sumlin tabbed Brian Stewart, who spent much of the last decade in the N.F.L., as Skladany’s replacement. What does Stewart bring to the table? Experience, both on the professional and college ranks: his most notable experience came as the coordinator under Wade Phillips with the Cowboys. Did that term end well? No, it most definitely did not. However, Stewart has proven himself as a capable defensive mind on the pro ranks and at stops with Missouri and Syracuse. He’s hungry to prove himself, hoping to eventually land a head coach position, and is certainly an upgrade over Skladany.

Players to watch

So Dana Holgorsen is gone. There’s no doubting his coaching acumen: Oklahoma State got a good one. Nevertheless, Houston won’t suffer any letdown offensively under its new co-coordinators, Jason Phillips and Kliff Kingsbury — the latter learned his trade at Holgorsen’s feet. Both will have the good fortune of having the services of Case Keenum for one more year; the senior is poised to set a pair of meaningful N.C.A.A. records en route to maybe, just maybe, taking the 2010 Heisman.

Keenum enters his final campaign within striking distance of the F.B.S. records for total offense and passing yardage, trailing the current record-holder by 3,169 yards and 4,167 yards, respectively. Barring injury, Keenum will shatter each mark in November — if not slightly sooner. Now, the big question: Is Keenum a system quarterback? Well, his numbers are surely a result of Houston’s prolific passing offense. However, Keenum is more than that; he could succeed in any offense, pass-first or pass-second, and is absolutely one of the finest quarterbacks in the country. Get ready for a Heisman run.

Another reason why this U.H. passing offense won’t miss a beat? The Cougars return each of their record-breaking trio of 1,000-yard receivers from a season ago: senior James Cleveland (104 catches for 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns) and juniors Tyron Carrier (91 catches for 1,029 yards) and Patrick Edwards (85 for 1,021). Cleveland, the reigning conference newcomer of the year, reached his lofty debut totals despite missing a pair of games to injury. Joining this trio in Houston’s four-receiver base set is senior Kierrie Johnson, who made 16 grabs for 237 yards last fall. This group, thanks both to their own talent and Keenum’s pinpoint accuracy, is unstoppable.

Junior running back Bryce Beall chips in with some action in the passing game, as shown by his 32-catch, 311-yard sophomore campaign. He won’t get many touches in the running game, but Beall makes them count: he rushed for 679 yards and 7 scores last fall despite splitting carries with Charles Sims, the 2009 Conference USA Freshman of the Year, who is academically ineligible for action this season. His lose will hurt, obviously, but the Cougars hope that junior Justin Johnson and sophomore Chris Wilson can help pick up the slack.

The bad news: Houston must replace a pair of starters up front. The good news: the Cougars still return linemen with starting experience throughout the line, thanks to injuries suffered a season ago. Sophomore Jacolby Ashworth is one such player who battled injuries last fall, ending the season on the sidelines, but hopes to remain healthy for an entire season at left tackle. He’ll be joined on the weak side by senior Isaiah Thompson, a starter on the defensive line last fall, who made the move to left guard during the spring; his performance during spring ball was impressive enough to move Thompson into the starting lineup. Junior Chris Thompson and senior Roy Watts will start at right guard and tackle, respectively, with senior Jordan Shoemaker moving from left guard to center in his final season.

Stewart’s first order of business was implementing the 3-4 defense, which might not be a bad move considering Houston’s talent at linebacker. The star of this group is junior inside linebacker Marcus McGraw, who paced Conference USA — and ranked among the top in the nation — with 156 tackles (9 for loss) a year ago. That total gave McGraw 259 total stops over his first two seasons, which began with McGraw breaking into the starting lineup as a true freshman. How many tackles can McGraw make in this new defense, which will put him in an even greater position to make plays? Barring injury, he’ll at least match last year’s output — if not exceed it.

McGraw will be joined in the middle by senior Matt Nicholson, who missed most of last season after being injured in Houston’s win over Texas Tech. Flanking this pair will be sophomore Phillip Steward and junior Sammy Brown, with Steward poised to take a significant step forward after impressing as a rookie in 2009. He’ll man the strong side in this alignment, with Brown on the strong side.

Two starters return in the secondary: cornerback Jamal Robinson and free safety Nick Saenz. Robinson is a nice story: plagued by injuries over his early career, Robinson stayed healthy last fall; the result was a team-best five interception, with his pick against Oklahoma State the deciding play of the game. Saenz finished third on the team with 114 tackles, though it says much about last year’s defense that a free safety was relied upon so heavily against the run.

Senior Loyce Means should start opposite Robinson at cornerback, with the senior bringing some starting experience to the table. He’ll need to prove himself in a full-time role, however. Look for some competition at strong safety, with both junior Roisean Haynes and sophomore Jeffery Lewis competing for the starting role.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line How bad was Houston’s rush defense last fall? My goodness, was it awful. Close your eyes and plug your ears bad; cringe-worthy; throw the remote; and so on. The defensive line, now a three-man group, returns three starters. Unfortunately, one such starter, Chris Thompson, moved to offense, as noted; and sophomore Zeke Riser will miss the season with a knee injury. That leaves one: junior David Hunter, a tackle last fall, moves outside to end. He’s a pretty good one — 57 tackles (8 for loss) and 4 sacks last fall — and should take well to his new position. What of the remaining two open spots? Sophomore Tyrone Campbell, one of last season’s reserves on the interior, will start at nose tackle. As I’ve said many, many times throughout the summer, the nose tackle position is the key to the entire scheme; get solid play from this spot, a guy who can occupy blockers to keep his linebackers clean, and the run defense will improve. At end, Houston will turn to former JUCO transfer Matangi Tonga, whose time at B.Y.U. — prior to heading to the JUCO ranks — gives him experience on the F.B.S. level. What of the second line? It will be three sophomores, none of whom bring extensive experience to the table. Radermon Scypion and Ameen Behbahani will be reserve ends, while DeAthony Sims will backup Campbell on the nose.

Game(s) to watch

You have to love how Houston schedules its non-conference slate: for the second consecutive season, the Cougars will take on three B.C.S. conference opponents in non-conference play. How about Texas Tech on the final weekend of the regular season? In conference play, games against S.M.U. and Tulsa will decide the West division.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Houston’s not a B.C.S. contender: the Cougars aren’t sweeping its three B.C.S. conference opposition, and will likely drop one game against conference opposition. Regardless, this team remains the clear top dog in Conference USA — and, in my opinion, it’s not very close. Perhaps S.M.U., if it can continue to improve, could steal one over the Cougars. In better news, thanks to E.C.U.’s decline, there is really no team in the East division with a shot of knocking off Houston in the conference title game — after falling short last fall, it would be very surprising if Houston didn’t run away with the Conference USA crown. The offense, even without Holgorsen pulling the strings, will again be among the best in the nation. In fact, with this experienced, senior-laden group, Houston could be even more prolific on offense than it was a season ago. All eyes will be on Keenum, of course, whose Heisman run begins in earnest come Houston’s trip to U.C.L.A. on the season’s third weekend. Sadly, his chances will likely be shot down thanks to Houston’s defense, which despite adding Stewart and altering its philosophy remains an enormous question mark. Will it be just good enough to keep Houston in the 10-win range? Without question — but that doesn’t mean it will be any good. If the Cougars had scheduled a slightly easier slate, there’s no question this team could have come close to running the table. They didn’t, of course, and the result will be either a nine- or 10-win regular season. Nothing wrong with that; Houston has never won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons.

Dream season While Houston drops one of its three games against U.C.L.A., Mississippi State and Texas Tech, the Cougars are perfect the rest of the way: 11-1, a perfect 8-0 in Conference USA play.

Nightmare season It would be a shock to see Houston hover around .500, but I suppose that would represent a nightmare scenario for the Cougars.

In case you were wondering

Where do Houston fans congregate? Message boards, as well as recruiting information, can be found at Coog Fans and Cougars DenCoogfun.com sounds entertaining, so check that out. Additional coverage can be found at the Web site of The Houston Chronicle. For a blog’s take, visit Fight for Red and White, which might be the only full-time Houston football on the Web.

Up Next

Who is No. 22? Our next university is the only public school in the country to be designated a land-grant, space-grant, sun-grant and and sea-grant institution.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. Dr. Klahn says:

    Oregon State is next

  2. ian walsh says:

    Next up, OSU
    The Orange and Black one
    The one in Oregon
    Go Beav’s!
    – i’d never heard of ‘sun grant’ interesting that the other OSU is also a ‘sun grant’ but of course not a ‘sea grant’ as it’s been a while since Oklahoma had a sea shore.
    and if Katz and keep the INT’s down, and the o line opens some holes up the middle (and getting a good hold of the backers a la Oregon’s exceptionally good O Line) they’ll end up much higher than 22 in the end.

  3. Coog71 says:

    Oregon State.

  4. Ezra says:

    I think the stat combo of scoring offense + scoring defense is a rich vein. Here’s a lot more about that:

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska up next. -jim narby

  6. Rookierookie says:

    Houston did sweep 3 BCS opponents last fall against a tougher schedule. Certainly they can run the non-conf slate this year too.

  7. tno19 says:

    4 for 4 baby

  8. [...] Five and Five: No. 23, Houston By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 23, is Houston. You can find a larger Houston preview here. [...]

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