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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. 25: Houston

Is Houston at the point where it’s about the program, not the star player? A year ago, I probably would have sided with the former, believing that the Cougars were built for long-term success despite a changing cast of characters. Now, after a 5-7 season, I wonder whether U.H. can really be considered one of those non-B.C.S. conference programs that will dally with 10 wins on a yearly basis. This after the Cougars started 2-0 with star quarterback Case Keenum, lost him midway through a loss to U.C.L.A. and then dropped six of its last nine, cutting its win total in half off a 10-win 2009 campaign. Will what occurs in 2011 answer the question about whether Houston is about the name on the front of the jersey or those on the back? Not really: Keenum’s back, so the Cougars will be back as well. Let’s revisit the question in 2012, I guess.

Conference
Conference USA, West

Location
Houston

Nickname
Cougars

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 23

2010 record
(5-7, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 75

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 10
    at North Texas
  • Sept. 17
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 24
    Georgia St.
  • Sept. 29
    at UTEP
  • Oct. 8
    E.C.U.
  • Oct. 22
    Marshall
  • Oct. 27
    Rice
  • Nov. 5
    at U.A.B.
  • Nov. 10
    at Tulane
  • Nov. 19
    S.M.U.
  • Nov. 25
    at Tulsa

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Injuries were the big story, nowhere more so than at quarterback. Houston lost its first and second quarterbacks in the loss to U.C.L.A., thrusting a true freshman under center and pushing Houston’s B.C.S. hope back a year. It’s funny, however: the offense remained potent, though a bit less so than in 2009. The Cougars ended the year fifth in the F,B.S. in passing, 11th in total offense and 13th in scoring — not quite up to the 2009 level, but totals good enough to at least win six games. Right? Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the defense couldn’t carry the water. Not the water, but any water. A first-year coordinator brought with him a new scheme, which may one day lead to a revitalized defensive effort but one that in 2010 saw the Cougars struggling to keep opponents off the board. That’s the primary reason why Houston lost four games in 2009, and the defense, along with injuries, are why Houston ended last season with a losing record.

High point Wins over S.M.U. and Memphis to end October. Especially the win over S.M.U., as everyone ran roughshod over Memphis. But the two wins left Houston at 5-3 entering November, with bowl play clearly in sight despite the injuries.

Low point Then the bottom dropped out. The Cougars ended the year 0-4, losing to four very good teams: U.C.F., Tulsa, Southern Mississippi and Texas Tech. Some thought before the year that the game with Texas Tech might be played with B.C.S. bowl hopes on the line, not just regular bowl hopes in the balance.

Tidbit Proof that nothing is more attractive than winning: Houston experienced an 82 percent rise in season ticket holders in 2010, though I’d guess that those fans who bought packages in September weren’t all that pleased to be sitting through a losing season. According to the university, Houston sold over 11,500 season tickets, a total that accounts for more than a third of the total capacity at Corbin J. Robertson Stadium.

Tidbit (total offense edition) Houston has lost 16 games over the last three years. In only one of those losses, last fall’s defeat to U.C.L.A., has the offense failed to score at least 20 points. In only two of those losses, U.C.L.A. and a bowl loss to Air Force in 2009, has the offense failed to gain at least 403 yards on offense. In all but four of those 16 losses, Houston has gained at least 423 yards of offense. Houston has actually gained at least 473 yards in nine of the program’s 16 losses since 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 WR Donnie Avery (St. Louis), RB Jackie Battle (Kansas City), WR James Cleveland (Dallas), LS Thomas Gafford (Kansas City), OG Rex Hadnot (Arizona), DE Phillip Hunt (Philadelphia), QB Kevin Kolb (Arizona), CB Loyce Means (Buffalo), TE Fendi Onobun (St. Louis), CB Jamal Robinson (Detroit), CB Stanford Routt (Oakland), OT Isaiah Thompson (Buffalo), OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England), OT Roy Watts (St. Louis).

Arbitrary top five list

M.L.B. teams farthest away from a World Series
1. Baltimore Orioles.
2. Houston Astros.
3. Seattle Mariners.
4. Kansas City Royals.
5. Washington Nationals.

Coaching

Kevin Sumlin (Purdue ’86), 23-16 after three seasons with the Cougars. Last fall was disappointing, to put it mildly, but Sumlin and U.H. were hampered in great part by troublesome injuries. So Houston’s fourth-year coach gets a nice pass; just don’t let it happen again. Sumlin did a superb job over his first two seasons, 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 first two years, U.H. looked very much looking like the future of the conference. Year four should end with Sumlin’s name back in the mix for B.C.S. conference openings. 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 from 1991-92, Minnesota from 1993-97, Purdue from 1998-2001, Texas A&M from 2001-2) he 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 and Houston should bounce back in 2011.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Houston’s going to score points. Tons of points. Will Houston get enough stops on defense? I’m not talking about shutouts, just around 28 points per game. No miracles. To further the defense’s ability to get the requisite number of stops, Sumlin hired a pair of defensive assistants to team with second-year coordinator Brian Stewart. One is defensive line coach Carlton Hall, who spent the last four years in the same capacity at Harvard. University. In Massachusetts. Hall graduated from Vanderbilt and has coached at Columbia, Georgetown and Harvard. He’ll be asked to tabulate the tip when the staff goes out to dinner. The second addition is linebackers coach Jamie Bryant, who most recently was the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. It’s no secret that the defense needs work.

Players to watch

Case Keenum is back. So is senior Cotton Turner, who replaced Keenum for a few plays before suffering his own season-ending injury against U.C.L.A., but most importantly: Case Keenum is back. Rest easy. The offense will now return to being one of the top five in the country, not one of the top 15 — the horror, I know — and Houston will return to the 10-win hunt, thanks to the N.C.A.A.’s decision to grant Houston’s starting quarterback a sixth year of eligibility. And so recommences Keenum’s assault on the N.C.A.A. record books: 2,462 yards short of Timmy Chang’s total offense record; 3,486 yards shy of Chang’s passing record; 27 touchdowns shy of Graham Harrell’s record — all will fall, barring injury.

Keenum led the nation in total offense in both 2008 and 2009, becoming the first player to do so since Hawaii’s Colt Brennan, and if all goes according to plan he’ll become the nation’s first three-time designee since Louisiana Tech’s Tim Rattay from 1997-99. Production, production, production. And some wobbly knees, which is a real cause for concern heading into his sixth season. That’s really the only concern: Keenum’s going to sling the ball around, throw for 5,000 yards, more than 30 touchdowns, less than 15 interceptions, all at around a 65 percent clip. In a league full of top-notch passing games, Keenum and Houston stand heads-and-shoulders above the rest.

You know what’s one of the silver linings from last season? Keenum’s injury provided turns in the saddle for the youngsters, which in turn provides Houston with enviable depth in 2011. the future is sophomore David Piland, last year’s starter post-U.C.L.A., who in a perfect world would take a redshirt and be Houston’s starter from 2012-14.

A slight reshuffling up front pushed all-conference right guard Chris Thompson over to center; he and junior Jacolby Ashworth are the lone two starters back off last year’s group. It’s a solid foundation upon which to rebuild, though perhaps the line would be better served promoting Blake Sargent to the top spot at center and returning Thompson to guard, where he’s one of Conference USA’s best. That development hinges on Sargent’s health, as his shoulder injury is what first prompted Thompson’s move. For now, redshirt freshman Bryce Redman and JUCO transfer Josh McNeill will battle for Thompson’s old spot. Sophomore Ty Cloud has a firm grasp on left guard, but Houston still hasn’t made a decision between redshirt freshman Rowdy Harper and sophomore Ralph Oragwu at right tackle.

Some things change, like along the offensive line, while others stay the same. You’ll see a handful of new names at receiver, but once again, it’ll be seniors Patrick Edwards (71 catches for 1,110 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Tyron Carrier (53 for 480) leading the way. Edwards is on the verge of becoming Houston’s first three-time 1,000-yard receiver, unless Carrier gets there first; both have done so twice for the Cougars, though Carrier’s totals took a dip a year ago. The starting foursome should all be seniors: Carries and Edwards are locked in, Justin Johnson (16 for 240) should start and E.J. Smith currently leads JUCO transfer Dewayne Pierce and sophomore Aaron Johnson.

Experience in this offense and steady production? This receiver corps is going to dominate. There’s a seemingly never-ending stream of younger receivers rising up the pipeline, like the latter Johnson, Isaiah Sweeney, Darian Lazard, Ronnie Williams and DeAndre Perry, to name a few. Keenum’s back, remember: the receiver corps is going to put up some four-digit totals.

Yet in terms of depth, the receiver corps can’t match what the Cougars bring to the table in the backfield. Senior Bryce Beall is coming off a team-best 870 yards rushing and 12 scores, earning all-conference honors in the process. Former JUCO transfer Michael Hayes added 629 yards and 8 scores, and is a very realistic threat to unseat Beall and become Houston’s lead back. The Cougars also return sophomore Charles Sims, a breakout contributor in 2009 — Conference USA Freshman of the Year — who sat out last season with academic issues. Three strong, right? Perhaps four, should junior Chris Wilson (122 yards) recover from a broken foot he suffered in July. Wilson might not be needed, in fact. It’s a scary proposition for the rest of Conference USA: Houston could run the ball very effectively if it so desired.

Houston’s yet another team that attempted to drastically shake things up defensively by moving to the 3-4, a process that begin last fall. It wasn’t an immediate hit: Houston still couldn’t stop anyone with a pulse, still gave up yard after yard after yard, still couldn’t stop the pass, still couldn’t limit the damage on the ground. So there’s plenty of room for improvement — that’s an understatement, actually. Once again, Houston enters a season crossing its fingers, hoping for defensive growth while secure in the knowledge that the offense can do enough to win more often than not. But you know those Conference USA title hopes, let alone those B.C.S. hopes? They’re not happening unless the defense improves.

I think the second year under Stewart and in this defense will yield better results. No, Houston isn’t turning into Alabama; the Cougars will just be a little better, if only because of the experience gained a season ago. As with Georgia, yesterday’s team, the biggest issue will be getting better play up front. Again, much hinges on what Houston gets at nose tackle. The job belongs to junior Tyrone Campbell, a part-time starter last fall. Campbell has the requisite size, though — as Hall has pointed out — he needs to play stronger at the point of attack. He’ll be backed up by converted offensive lineman Austin Lunsford, who doesn’t lack for size but is an unknown defensively.

The star up front is senior end David Hunter (51 tackles, 8 for loss). Hunter’s a fairly prototypical 3-4 end: big, strong, relatively active, Hunter is a strong anchor at end but not quite the rush presence Houston has landed at end in recent years. But he’s steady, and that’s a quantity in high demand on this defense. There’s an ongoing competition on the other side, where junior Kelvin King (36 tackles, 4 sacks) and redshirt freshman Eric Braswell stand tied atop the depth chart. There’s another option in sophomore Zeke Riser, the starter in 2009 who missed last season due to injury. If nothing else, depth is significantly improved at end. That’s a good thing.

Houston’s linebacker corps is deep: 20 strong, counting the new additions, meaning there are nearly as many linebackers as there are receivers and tight ends on this roster. Clearly, U.H. has jumped into this 3-4 system with both feet. The leader at linebacker — and the defense as a whole — is senior Marcus McGraw, last year’s leading tackler (110, 7 for loss) and a starter since stepping on campus four years ago. Like Hunter, McGraw is a solid, steady presence in the middle of the defense. The star at linebacker, however, is senior weak side linebacker Sammy Brown (20 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), a former JUCO transfer who was a revelation during his first year on campus.

Brown is joined on the strong side by junior Phillip Steward (84 tackles, 9 for loss), an overshadowed piece of last year’s starting quartet. That’s a very good outside combination. Sophomore Efrem Oliphant assumes a full-time starting role inside next to McGraw after making three starts a year ago. Houston’s linebacker corps has the pieces to make the 3-4 work. It’s up to the line to deliver.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary If you’re looking for a reason why Houston will not experience the rebound most expect, take a glance at a depleted secondary. This was a group that gave up yards and points in bunches last fall; three starters must be replaced, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your overall sense of optimism. The one returning defensive back with starting experience, safety Nick Saenz (72 tackles), is still recovering from surgery, though after sitting out the spring he should be ready to go come September. Whether Saenz retains his starting role remains to be seen, however. With sophomore Kent Brooks (36 tackles, 2 interceptions) looking like the starter at free safety, Saenz may make the move over to strong safety. If that does occur, Saenz will battle former Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia for the starting spot. Saenz needs to play, thanks to his experience, and he’s a good enough tackler to make the move from free to strong safety with relative ease — in fact, moving Saenz out of free safety may be the right move for this pass defense as a whole. While much will be decided throughout this month, it seems like JUCO transfers D.J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett will start at cornerback, where U.H. must replace the top three at the position. Could the entire defense, if not the success of the entire season, hinge on how quickly this pair can adopt to the major college game? Absolutely. There’s precious little experience in reserve, most of it coming in junior Jeffrey Lewis, and Houston is counting on the JUCO tandem to deliver right out of the box. If they don’t, the pass defense could be worse than it was in 2010. If that happens, U.H. isn’t going anywhere.

Game(s) to watch

Get past U.C.L.A. first, something Houston couldn’t do in 2010. That would open the Cougars up for a very nice start, as no team prior to East Carolina has the firepower to keep up with U.H. on the scoreboard. The schedule brings S.M.U. to Houston but sends the Cougars to Tulsa over the final two weeks of the year, so plenty will remain undecided until late November.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Houston’s not going to run through the season undefeated, thanks to this defense, but the offense will be good enough to win 10 games and the Conference USA West division. Sound familiar? That’s nearly a verbatim quote from last year’s preview, and I have no problem with that: new year, same story — minus the injuries, Houston hopes. Keenum’s return spells an offensive resurgence of sorts, as while the Cougars still moved the ball with ease in 2010 the offense certainly missed its Heisman hopeful under center. If healthy, Keenum will be the most prolific quarterback in college football; if he’s healthy, U.H. will again rank among the five most potent offensive teams in the country. And that, if for no other reason, is why Houston is going to win 10 games. Yeah, there’s a lot riding on health. You can say that about countless teams across the country, however, and Houston has good enough depth at receiver and running back though — and maybe even quarterback, though that’s a frightening scenario — to suffer an injury or two and still keep racking up the points. It’s the defense, once again, that’ll keep U.H. from making a run towards the B.C.S., though there’s a fair chance that the Cougars are able to finish the regular season 12-0. I think the front seven is going to be better, but the secondary is a tremendous concern. S.M.U., for instance, could pass for 500 yards on the Cougars. But the offense will offset the defensive liabilities. And when all is said and done, Houston will be one of the four or five best non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country. To me, anything less than 10-2 in the regular season would be a disappointment.

Dream season Houston runs the table in the regular season, finally knocks off U.C.F. in the conference title game and heads into B.C.S. play at 13-0.

Nightmare season The Cougars make only a slight improvement, going 7-5, and have no injuries to blame this time.

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 blog on the Web.

Word Count

Through 96 teams 296,684.

Up Next

Who is No. 24? The city housing tomorrow is also home to an independent film company whose debut feature, back in 2006, starred an actress whose next role came in a sequel to a 2004 thriller that featured an actor honored with a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor in 1985. You follow me?

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Comments

  1. Dwayne says:

    I got as far as Butterfly Effect 2. Don’t know which actress,which company, which city, or which school.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    The University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida is home to Dolphin Entertainment, which produced the independent Lifetime film Stranded, featuring Erica Durance, whose next film role was The Butterfly Effect 2, the sequel to The Butterfly Effect in 2004, which starred Eric Stoltz, who was honored with a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 1985 Golden Globes for his role in Mask.

    Tailor made for me, Paul! And it included Eric Stoltz,too. Fresh off my request for him to be in the Tulsa pic.

    Paul: I knew when I was writing the hint that at least one person would connect the dots.

  3. Parker says:

    Nice review Paul. Season ticket holder here. A few points.

    1. I didn’t see anything about special teams. Houston’s special teams should be among the best in the country. Rivals ranks the unit #9 nationally. Our junior FG kicker is 26 for 29 and hit a 51-yarder on the road as a frosh as time expired to beat Tulsa. Our Punter averaged 41.4 last year as a frosh with 12 inside the 20 vs. only 2 touchbacks. KR Tyron Carrier has 6 career TD returns, one shy of CJ Spiller’s career record. PR Patrick Edwards averages 15 yards a return.

    2. The main question mark on offense is how fast the rebuilt OL gels. This is particularly important for the opener vs. UCLA. If we can run the ball on UCLA, we should win that game. If we can’t, it might be a long afternoon.

    3. You are right to focus on the defense as the main key to the season. Regarding the Juco corners, both were highly recruited off the JC national champ team and both came in at midterm. So they were able to practice in the Spring, and they were impressive. Coach Sumlin said at media day: “The addition of [the juco corners] really helps what we are trying to do on defense. Last season, we gave up too many touchdown passes, and our corners didn’t allow us to load the box and play some different coverages. It starts on the perimeter.” Sounds like he feels good about them.

    If we can get past UCLA (no easy task – they crushed us last year), there’ll be a couple of trap games along the way but we should really outclass everyone until we get to SMU and Tulsa at the end of the year.

    Parker

  4. M Meyer says:

    Darn. I got to Butterfly Effect 2 and glossed over Erica Durance because her film was a tv movie. Not a good reason to skip her.

  5. Bill condon says:

    You ranked a team that is worried about beating UCLA ahead of Georgia and Florida? Curious.

  6. Andrew says:

    You made a list of teams farthest away from winning the World Series, and left off the Chicago Cubs? I’d put them at #5 and drop the Nats. Harper, Strasburg, and lots of young talent in Washington’s system, but the cupboard is pretty bare in Wrigleyville.

    Paul: Only reason why I had Chicago off the list is because they have the finances to make a quick move. The Orioles will never, ever win a World Series again, because they have terrible personnel development and can’t entice a free agent to play in Baltimore. The Cubs have done a nice job with youngsters and can offer free agents money, a good city and a solid fan base.

  7. Paul says:

    And the Orioles used to be known for their farm system. (30 or 40 years ago… showing my age again)

  8. Anthony says:

    Love the blog. Pretty good prediction. You hit the dream season on the head at 12-0.

    Heres to looking forward to your 2012 review soon and another dream season.

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