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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. 30: Houston

Houston had a simple modus operandi under Kevin Sumlin: push the ball, push it down field, push on first down, push it on third down. Never settle. Maintain this non-stop pressure in the passing game, going for broke even in short-yardage situations. Act, making the opposition react, and never vice versa. This is how Houston kept teams off balance; this is how the Cougars dominated offensively. Despite the coaching change and the loss of several key contributors, this mentality won’t change under Tony Levine, the former U.H. assistant who earned a nice and well-deserved promotion last December. The truth is that it’s not broken – why would Levine and Houston change a thing? The Cougars will continue going full-bore, keeping the same pedal-to-the-floor mentality that propelled this program to such great heights a season ago, as doing anything less would signal that something was wrong with the way U.H. approached the game over the last few seasons. If dominating Conference USA was wrong, here’s guessing that Levine and U.H. don’t want to be right.

Conference USA, West



Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 16

2011 record
(13-1, 8-0)

Last year’s

No. 16

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Texas St.
  • Sept. 8
    Louisiana Tech
  • Sept. 15
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 29
    at Rice
  • Oct. 6
    North Texas
  • Oct. 13
  • Oct. 18
    at S.M.U.
  • Oct. 27
  • Nov. 3
    at E.C.U.
  • Nov. 10
  • Nov. 17
    at Marshall
  • Nov. 24

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell This was one of the finest seasons in school history. The Cougars won a program-record 13 games; scored a program-record 690 points; averaged just shy of 50 points per game; had a Heisman-worthy quarterback setting a slew of N.C.A.A. career records; and for the first time since 1999, allowed fewer than 324 points in a season. Don’t sleep on the latter fact, as while the offense got the headlines it was the defense that lifted Houston from Conference USA leader to B.C.S. contender. The Cougars finished 35th nationally in total defense after finishing 96th in that category in 2010. The Cougars could always score points; that they could stop opponents from doing the same lifted them into the national title picture.

High point A 48-16 win over Tulsa on Nov. 25. To that point, the Golden Hurricane were the best team Houston faced all season. The Cougars broke it open over the game’s final 17 minutes, breaking Tulsa’s back with 28 unanswered points.

Low point The loss to Southern Mississippi. The worse part? The Golden Eagles dominated a Houston offensive front that did a strong job protecting the quarterback all season. While U.S.M. only sacked Case Keenum twice, its defensive line jostled Houston’s timing in the passing game.

Tidbit It took 12 games, all wins, for Houston to set a new school record for victories in a single season. Prior to last fall, the Cougars had won 11 games twice (1973 and 1979) and 10 games four times (1976, 1990, 2006 and 2009). The bowl victory over Penn State gave U.H. 13 wins, which set a new Conference USA single-season record – prior to last season, in fact, no Conference USA program had won more than 11 games in a year since the league’s formation in 1996. And what about the 13 victories on a national level? In the modern era, only 16 teams have won 13 or more games in a season: Alabama, Auburn, Boise State, B.Y.U., Florida, Georgia, L.S.U., Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, T.C.U., Utah and Houston.

Tidbit (scoring edition) The Cougars scored 358 points over the final six games of the regular season – that’s 59.7 points per game, by the way. That total alone would have tied U.H. for 55th nationally in scoring, right next to Washington State and Iowa and a touchdown behind of North Carolina. If you take Houston’s final seven games of the regular season, 406 points, the Cougars would have Texas Tech for 38th nationally in scoring offense.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 WR Donnie Avery (Indianapolis), LB Sammy Brown (St. Louis), WR Pat Edwards (Detroit), LS Thomas Gafford (Kansas City), OG Rex Hadnot (San Diego), RB Michael Hayes (San Diego), DE Phillip Hunt (Philadelphia), DT David Hunter (Houston), QB Case Keenum (Houston), QB Kevin Kolb (Arizona), LB Marcus McGraw (Arizona), TE Fendi Onobun (Buffalo), CB Stanford Routt (Kansas City), S Nick Saenz (Buffalo), OT Sebastian Vollmer (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

American female figure skaters, 1994-2010
1. Tara Lipinski.
2. Michelle Kwan.
3. Sarah Hughes.
4. Sasha Cohen.
5. Nancy Kerrigan.


Tony Levine (Minnesota ’96), entering his first season as Houston’s head coach. Technically, Levine was named as Kevin Sumlin’s full-time replacement in time for the Cougars’ lopsided bowl win over Penn State; he was named as the program’s 12th head coach on Dec. 22, more than a week before the TicketCity Bowl. He was promoted from within Sumlin’s staff: Levine joined Houston in 2008 as the team’s special teams coordinator, tight ends coach and inside receivers coach after spending two years as a strength and conditioning assistant with the Carolina Panthers. While it was with the Cougars that Levine made his name – though he remained largely unknown outside of Conference USA – he did bring nearly a decade of college experience to the table in 2008. His coaching career began at Texas State, where he coached the tight ends and receivers from 1997-99. After two years as a graduate assistant at Auburn, Levine served one season at Louisiana Tech (2002) and three years at Louisville (2003-5), first as the director of football operations and then, for his final two seasons, as the special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach. It was at Houston that Levine’s strengths – his ability to rally this team, not to mention his wonderful work with the wide receiver position – became clearly evident to those associated with the program. His drawbacks are simple: Levine has never been a coordinator, nor has he held an assistant position at a B.C.S. conference program; normally, these are coaching prerequisites. But Houston was looking for continuity with this hire, and Levine’s knowledge of this roster, this system, this program and its fan base made him a very solid hire at a crucial juncture in Houston’s history. If more of the same was what U.H. was looking for – and wisely, it was – Levine fits the bill.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Three coaches remain, each on the defensive side of the ball. Jamie Bryant moves up to defensive coordinator, replacing Maryland-bound Brian Stewart, after serving as Houston’s linebacker coach a season ago. Likewise with defensive line coach Carlton Hall, who came over from Harvard prior to last season, and cornerbacks coach Zac Spavital, who enters his fourth season with the program. But the rest of the staff has been completely altered, with no one hire bigger – and more key to the Cougars’ success – than new offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt, who spent the last two seasons running offenses at West Texas A&M and Stephen F. Austin. The rest of Levine’s new offensive staff includes line coach Lee Hays, the former coordinator at Baylor; running backs coach Travis Bush, the former coordinator at Texas-San Antonio; inside receivers coach Jamie Christian, who will also coordinate Houston’s special teams – something he did well at Arizona State; and outside receivers coach Brandon Middleton, who was once one of most electric pass-catchers in program history.

Players to watch

Where Houston will dominate offensively isn’t at quarterback, though the Cougars’ succession plan – the blueprint for replacing Case Keenum – has progressed nicely since the start of spring practice. The Cougars are not going to run out a four-receiver set that shakes the knees of opposing defensive backs, though while this receiver corps lacks experience it doesn’t lack overall talent, not to mention speed, athleticism and explosiveness. While much has changed on offense, from the coaching staff through the personnel, one thing remains the same: Houston’s offensive line, superb last fall, will be even better with another year of experience under its belt.

Last fall, this group allowed one sack for every 38.9 pass attempts; this line also helped Houston rank 22nd nationally in yards per carry and 16th nationally in rushing touchdowns. The Cougars’ strength is at tackle, with senior Jacolby Ashworth on the left side and sophomore Rowdy Harper on the right. While Ashworth spent some time at guard during the spring, U.H. would be foolish to rob itself of an all-conference protector on the blind side; between Ashworth and Harper, a reigning freshman all-American, the Cougars should be rock-solid in pass protection.

You’ll see some shuffling inside. In an effort to replace center Chris Thompson, Houston moved junior Kevin Forsch over from right guard. That opens up a spot for one of several young and impressive linemen, including sophomore Emeka Okafor, who played as a true freshman – if not former JUCO transfer Josh McNeill or sophomore Bryce Redman, if this staff feels comfortable moving Redman away from his work as the team’s backup center. Rounding out the interior of the line is junior Ty Cloud, who returns at left guard after starting all 14 games of last season. In fact, U.H. started the same five linemen for every single game of last fall – you can’t count on that happening again, but this team has enough depth to remain afloat up front should one or two starters miss time due to injury.

The new star of this offense is junior running back Charles Sims (821 yards rushing, 51 receptions for 575 yards), one of the best dual-threat running backs in college football. Sims’ role in this offense extends beyond the ground game, though he was dynamic in this area a season ago; Sims averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored nine times, teaming with then-seniors Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall to give U.H. one of the finest backfields in the country. Sims is also a superb receiver: his short catches are an extension of the running game, in essence, and he will be leaned on heavily in all facets of his game – both in the running game and as a pass-catcher – as U.H. breaks in a new quarterback and a new stable of receivers.

After making 110 carries last fall, look for Sims’ workload to move up towards the 200-cary mark in 2012; overall, Houston’s goal should be to get the ball in Sims’ hands around 225-250 times. He’s that good, and that explosive, and he’s that much the centerpiece of a slightly new-look offensive system. U.H. will still need to compliment Sims with a few secondary backs, however, so look for a greater role for senior Braxton Welford, one of those do-everything, help-the-squad players found on every great team in college football; you should also keep an eye on several incoming freshmen, at least three of whom will begin their careers in the backfield.

The new quarterback will be sophomore David Piland, who needed about two or three spring practices to end an already silly quarterback competition – it was clear that Piland was going to be Houston’s next starter way back in 2010, when the then-true freshman replaced an injured Keenum for the final eight games of a disappointing season. Well, Piland didn’t disappoint: he threw for 301 yards in his debut – against Mississippi State, no less – and 2,641 yards altogether, along with 24 touchdowns, and showed the sort of ability and potential that makes him one of several under-the-radar quarterbacks poised to make national noise come September.

You couldn’t draw up a better succession plan. Piland has spent two seasons working under Keenum, a genuine master in this offense. He has past starting experience. Last fall, Piland spent the entire season working on the little things – his reads, his pocket presence, his knowledge of this entire offense – while taking a redshirt, alleviating the pressure that comes with being a team’s backup option. He knows the Air Raid offense from front to back now, and that he was far less familiar with the system as a true freshman yet still delivered bodes extremely well for this future with this program.

The bottom line: Piland is going to throw for 4,000 yards, toss 35 touchdowns, complete at least 60.0 percent of his attempts and lead this offense to another banner season – just not to the sort of success we saw a season ago. And as the year wears on, look for the sophomore to grow even more comfortable in the starting lineup; the same can be said of this entire offense, including a new-look receiver corps working to get on the same page as its quarterback. It’s going to interesting to see just how well Piland plays as the full-time starter; he’s going to play well, with the only question just how strong he can be as Houston’s quarterback.

Nesbitt won’t alter the overall philosophy behind Houston’s offense, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cougars’ new coordinator placed a bit more emphasis on the running game. Where U.H. will make a more drastic change is on defense: Bryant, despite being part of last year’s staff – and an underappreciated assistant nationally, one who deserved more credit for his work with the team’s linebackers – will shift the Cougars away from the 3-4 and into a 4-3 base set. It’s a nice time to make the move, seeing that U.H. lost two starters on the second level while the front four returns solid depth, experience and potential.

There’s only one loss along the defensive line, though it’s a big one: David Hunter, an end who doubled as a situational rusher inside, was a multiple-year starter who gave U.H. some production and leadership outside during his final season. One thing to like about this defensive front is that it somewhat senior-heavy, and these seniors were in the fold when the Cougars last ran the 4-3, back in 2009. In addition, the Cougars ran the basics of a 4-3 last fall, albeit with a twist: while U.H. lined up differently – and that’s a big difference, I know – this defense did bring pressure from four defenders on every play, with an outside linebacker filling the role of a traditional end.

Obviously, you’ll see smaller ends in the new base formation. The top four at the position are seniors Lloyd Allen (23 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Kelvin King (26 tackles, 4.0 for loss), junior Zeke Riser and sophomore Eric Braswell (47 tackles, 3.5 for loss). While no one end stands out, the Cougars have a nice blend of strengths at the position: Riser, who started as a freshman in 2009, is the bigger, anchor-like end against the run, one who can move inside on passing downs; Braswell has the makings of an all-conference, every-down end; and both Lloyd and King, the latter a converted linebacker, can be very dangerous in situational roles. The Cougars also moved former linebacker Efrem Oliphant down to end; he started three games in 2010 before missing all of last season due to injury.

Inside, U.H. can team Dominic Miller (25 tackles), last year’s nose tackle, with sophomore Joey Mbu to give this defense a tough and strong interior against the run. The Cougars also return senior Radermon Scypion, though he must prove he can remain healthy, not to mention redshirt freshman Keithen English and a pair of incoming freshmen, both of whom could factor into the rotation by midseason. One thing to keep in mind is that Bryant and new defensive line coach Ricky Logo have the opportunity to be flexible: Riser can move inside, as could King, potentially, and Scypion could also shift outside to end. Houston can trot out any number of line permutations throughout the course of a single game, if not over a single series.

If any team can replace linebackers like Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw – one the most electric linebackers in football, the other the leading tackler in school history – it’s Houston. Again, shifting into the 4-3 will help Houston, especially when it comes to forming a capable two-deep. While Oliphant’s position change robs U.H. of one linebacker with starting experience, Bryant feels comfortable moving forward with senior Everett Daniels (38 tackles) in the middle, replacing McGraw. What will helps Daniels slide into a starting role are the two linebackers flanking him in the starting lineup: Phillip Steward (77 tackles, 6 interceptions) on the strong side and Derrick Matthews (106 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 3 interceptions) on the weak side.

Steward, a senior, is one of the nation’s best in coverage; this makes him an every-down linebacker, which then makes him one of the most valuable defenders on this roster. But it’s Matthews that seems poised to mount an outstanding career at Houston; he finished second on the team in tackles last fall as a true freshman, and will be given even more room to operate in this new system – he’ll be the new Brown, in a sense, working on the weak side and bringing pressure off the edge. With a promising front four and this pair working at outside linebacker, Houston’s front seven won’t experience any drop off – instead, this group might be even better than it was a year ago.

What was amazing about last year’s secondary was that it never let up: not when Houston was ahead by 40 points in the fourth quarter, not when tied in the first half, not ever – the Cougars’ pass defense was superb every Saturday, more or less, and superb for 60 minutes at that. While it’ll be hard for U.H. to match last year’s totals against the pass, the Cougars return every meaningful piece of last year’s two-deep outside of safety Nick Saenz.

This is a secondary paced by Conference USA’s finest cornerback tandem. Senior D.J. Hayden (66 tackles, 2 interceptions), the conference’s newcomer of the year last fall, gives U.H. a clear stopper on the outside; he also gives this team a very useful tool during practice – if the new receivers can get open against Hayden they can get open against any cornerback in this league. Joining Hayden at cornerback is junior Zach McMillan (44 tackles, 1 interception), a 12-game starter a season ago. McMillan will get picked on at times, thanks to Hayden’s play on the other side, but he proved himself to be up to the challenge last fall.

Houston will shuffle things at safety to replace Saenz. Last fall, junior Colton Valencia started four of the year’s first five games at strong safety before being slowed by injuries; he was replaced by junior Kent Brooks (75 tackles), who started nine games at the position. This season, U.H. will move Valencia over to free safety – where he’s a better fit – and keep Brooks at strong safety, giving this defense two very experienced starters along the back end. If Valencia struggles or cannot stay injury-free, U.H. could move senior Chevy Bennett over to free safety from cornerback, or do the same with junior Thomas Bates.

Levine has had a profound impact on Houston’s special teams over the last few seasons, most notably in the return game. This fall, the Cougars will look to continue their field-position dominance with a new cast of return men – perhaps paced by sophomore Damien Payne, who had a 76-yard punt return for six against Tulane. The kicking game will remain the same, with senior Matt Hogan handling place-kicking duties and junior Richie Leone working on punts.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver It’s one thing to replace Keenum; that’s hard enough, in fact. But Houston must also replace the overwhelming majority of its two-deep at receiver, from Patrick Edwards through E.J. Smith, and returns only a slim slice of last season’s production – five of the top six targets, all seniors, combined for 67.8 percent of Houston’s receptions and 75.1 percent of its receiving yards. As much as Levine and Nesbitt will stress getting the running backs involved in the passing game, it’s obvious that U.H. must land similar production and consistency from its receiver corps for this offense to run at full capacity.

The bad news, of course, is that U.H. lacks adequate experience – game experience. The good news is that the Cougars return several receivers with a strong familiarity with this system, not to mention four or five targets with the potential to become the program’s next all-conference receiver. One who fits into the latter category is sophomore Daniel Spencer (12 catches for 171 yards), who brings a running back’s mentality to the position; Spencer can give U.H. some post-catch yardage, which is an added bonus in this system. He’s one of three very likely starters, joining junior DeWayne Peace, a former JUCO transfer, and senior Ronnie Williams (16 for 138), one of the Cougars’ leaders.

Then there’s true freshman Deontay Greenberry, the former Notre Dame commit who flipped to Houston on national signing day – giving this program one of the most touted recruits in its history. While he’ll be behind the eight ball in terms of learning this system, Greenberry, along with another two or three incoming freshmen, will be given every opportunity to slide into a substantial role. While Greenberry will dominate the headlines during fall camp, don’t sleep on another handful of younger alternatives: Gino Collins, Aaron Johnson and Mark Roberts, among a few others. U.H. will cobble together a strong passing game with or without options like Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson out wide; the question is whether the Cougars can match last year’s dynamic production while breaking in five or six new faces – and whether U.H. can go as deep as they did a season ago.

Game(s) to watch

Once again, Houston will be handed one of the easiest schedules in the country – and certainly one of the easiest for any team with national aspirations. The non-conference slate will again include U.C.L.A. and Louisiana Tech, with the Bruins on the road and the Bulldogs at home. Unlike last fall, the Cougars will get S.M.U. on the road but Tulsa at home; if push comes to shove, as I think it will, that the Golden Hurricane come to Houston gives the Cougars the edge in the West division. At most, U.H. is going to play six or seven bowl teams during the regular season; that may be a stretch, in fact. But as always, the weaker schedule comes with a cost: Houston is not going to gain entry to a major bowl without a perfect regular season. Even with an easy slate, that’s going to be difficult.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell One thing hasn’t changed: I still think that Houston is the best team in Conference USA. At the same time, however, it’s obvious that the Cougars are not going to mount another B.C.S. run – the losses are severe, for one, and the team must adapt to a new lead voice and a drastically altered staff of assistants. Helping matters is the fact that Levine was promoted from within the staff; it also helps that Bryant was the pick as Levine’s defensive coordinator, even if he’ll transition U.H. back into a 4-3 base set. Whether the Cougars can post another double-digit win regular season hinges entirely on this staff’s ability to sew up the many holes on the two-deep while seamlessly transitioning the new faces into the altered schemes, especially on defense.

It’s going to take a slight change in expectations. The baseline remains the same: Houston should win the West division, and anything less would be a disappointment. But the Cougars are still going to take some lumps, especially in the early going. Piland will need time to regain his footing as the full-time starter. The receiver corps will need snaps to gel as a unit. Likewise along the front seven, which changes schemes to adapt to the 4-3 formation. These facts will lead to a learning curve, one that will cost Houston – in my mind – three losses during the regular season.

But you like this team’s youth and resulting potential. I also appreciate what Bryant and Nesbitt are aiming for as the team’s new coordinators: Bryant wants to be more attacking and aggressive, which might explain why U.H. has moved a few players down to end, looking to add more speed; Nesbitt wants to even further ramp up the offense’s tempo, getting U.H. to the point where its rhythm leaves defenses gasping for breath. It’s hard to believe, but the Cougars might be even more frenetic than they were under the previous staff. This will make Houston interesting to watch, even if the results tail off from last season. Based on talent, solid leadership and dozens of very young and promising underclassmen, Houston is going to net one final Conference USA championship before heading to the Big East. I think nine wins during the regular season, though with this schedule, anything less than eight victories would be a disappointment.

Dream season Once again, Houston storms through an undefeated regular season. Unlike a year ago, however, the Cougars notch a win in the Conference USA title game and earn a B.C.S. berth.

Nightmare season The Cougars take more than a step back – they leap from 13 wins to 6-6, barely squeezing into bowl play and departing for the Big East on a very low note.

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 DenCoogfit.com still 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.

Houston’s all-name nominee OT Rowdy Harper.

Word Count

Through 95 teams 381,553.

Up Next

Who is No. 29? The head coach at the next program is the first in college football history with his last name. There are two coaches who share the first three letters of his last name, however: one who posted a pair of undefeated seasons and one whose head coaching career ended with a winning season.

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  1. LC says:

    Next up is Rutgers. Kyle Flood
    Johhny Floyd (2 undefeated seasons)
    Ron Flowers (ended on a positive season)

  2. Xenocide23 says:

    Ohio Bobcats?

  3. John says:

    Ohio is next

  4. Scott Wallace says:

    23 days to game day.

  5. Jeff says:

    I don’t think that it is Ohio. LC looks correct though.

  6. Jeff says:

    Assuming #29 is Rutgers

    Let’s see…Notre Dame, Boise State, Ohio, BYU

    Name four football programs that have nothing at all in common with each other except that the are the 4 teams not in the ACC, B10, B12, P10, or SEC left on Paul’s list of teams to rank.

  7. Greg says:


  8. Flood says:


    LC, while correct, is late to the party.

  9. Interesting says:

    The only non-AQ teams left are the predicted MAC champ and MWC champ.

    The lesser non-AQ conferences WAC, Sun Belt, and CUSA are all accounted for.

    Also interesting to note is that only the predicted Big East champ is left.

    So after the top 5 conferences (new “power” conferences), the next tier is MAC, Big East, and MWC.

    Followed by the last tier of the WAC, Sun Belt, and CUSA (WACUSunbelt).

  10. Flood says:

    Where’s the original comment?

  11. JerryD says:

    Correction: website is “coogit” instead of “coogfun”

    Paul: Got it, thanks. Fixed above.

  12. NTXCoog says:

    Great article as usual. Houston will be an interesting watch this year. There are lots of questions, but I think UH will have at least passing grades on those questions.

    UH also has plenty of strengths going into the season from the RB to the OL to most of the defense.

    It would be a shock if the nightmare 6-6 occurred. I think the dream season is more likely than the nightmare, but still not a very good chance. 9 wins seems likely.

  13. RICKY says:

    good write up, lots of incite also…

  14. Coug75 says:

    Very nice article about Houston with in-depth analysis at virtually every position. I was very happy to read the positive comments on Houston’s defense. The defense gave up quite a few points to some teams (none of which could be considered powerhouse teams) in the 2011 season. Waiting to see how the D shapes up this year.

  15. Hoss Coog says:

    Here’s the full link for CoogIt: http://www.coogit.proboards.com

    It has replaced CoogFun and it’s the message board that lets Houston Cougar fans discuss how they feel without the threat of censorship if they are critical or don’t drink the Kool-aid.

    Come over to coogit.proboards.com and practice your First Amendment Rights!

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