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

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This Must Be Rock Bottom, Houston Hopes

This is the bottom, I think – and Houston hopes. The most damning factoid that could be used to define a team is that it forced five turnovers yet lost the turnover battle, as the Cougars did on Saturday night. U.C.L.A. had five turnovers; Houston had six. What the heck is going on here? Through three weeks, there has be no more disappointing team in college football. No team has suffered a more inexplicable loss, with all due to respect to Pittsburgh, Arkansas and Wyoming, among others. Of the 27 teams that notched double-digit wins last fall, how many seem assured of not reaching that mark in 2012? I’ll say three: Arkansas State, Arkansas… and Houston.

So what has gone wrong? What the heck is going on here? How have the Cougars gone from 13 wins, a program record, to the bottom of the F.B.S. barrel? What can the Cougars do to dig themselves out of this hole? Is the year unsalvageable? One question at a time, please.

Here’s what’s gone wrong: everything. The offense has been the ultimate paper tiger; while U.H. ranks 39th nationally in total offense, this group has been anything but competent through three weeks. The Cougars gained 326 yards in the 30-13 loss to Texas State. They gained another 388 yards in Saturday’s loss to Bruins.

Don’t even get me started on this defense, which can’t get stops on third down, can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass, can’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback and can’t keep teams out of the end zone. This defense is horrific – though not as bad as this offense.

All that’s propping U.H. up offensively is a 693-yard performance in a loss to Louisiana Tech. That total is unbelievably misleading. One: Houston racked up yards in bunches after the Bulldogs took a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. U.H. gained 150 yards over its last two drives, giving a 56-35 game its 56-49 final score.

Two: U.H. gained its 693 yards on 115 plays – an average of 6.03 yards per play. Is that noteworthy? Alone, that average would rank the Cougars 48th in the F.B.S., a very slight tick ahead of Texas-San Antonio and Wyoming. Last fall, under a different coaching staff, the Cougars finished second nationally in averaging 7.61 yards per play.

What’s 1.6 yards between friends? Just 1,600 yards, if U.H. ends up running 1,000 plays on the season – or 1,670 yards, if the Cougars end up running 1,044 plays, which this offense is currently on pace to do over the course of the regular season. Houston’s once-proud offense is a shell of itself.

David Piland is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt, which doesn’t even rank among the top 100 quarterbacks nationally. Likewise with his completion percentage, 54.1, which also ranks ninth among eligible Conference USA quarterbacks. Where have you gone, Houston’s identity?

Okay, so it’s time for tough questions – or a little bit of devil’s advocate, at least. On one hand, there’s the idea that Tony Levine and his staff, highlighted by new offensive coordinator Travis Bush, need time to implement their vision for Houston football. It’s a valid, logical statement that should be considered when weighing the Cougars’ foul start.

On the other hand, you have to at least posit a different scenario: Levine is in over his head. He wouldn’t be the first unqualified, feel-good hire to come up short in the top spot – heck, Jon Embree, another favorite son handed the keys, has been an utter disaster over at Colorado.

Didn’t Levine hit the ground running during bowl play, when he led U.H. to a one-sided win over Penn State? Yes, but he did so with Case Keenum, a wonderful receiver corps and then-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips, though Kliff Kingsbury had left to join Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Is it possible – or even probable – that Keenum and company had more to do with the Cougars’ bowl win than Levine?

Levine’s mishandling of his key hire, offensive coordinator, set a new bar for first-time-coach buffoonery. Say what you will about Mike Nesbitt, that he was not ready for the step up in competition, that he was inflexible, that his offense did mesh with Houston’s returning talent. It all comes down to this: Levine made the hire. If Nesbitt wasn’t ready, shouldn’t Levine have known this during the interview process?

The only way Houston can dig itself out of this hole is by making grassroots changes on offense: Bush needs to pop in last year’s tape, take notes and bring U.H. back into its comfort zone. If the Cougars’ offense can retake shape, the upcoming schedule is kind enough to reach bowl eligibility.

But even that comes with one large, unavoidable disclaimer: With Houston’s talent and Conference USA’s lack of elite teams, anything less than six wins over the year’s last nine games would be a Texas-sized disappointment. At this crucial juncture, Houston can’t afford more of what we’ve seen over its first three games.

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  1. Cappy says:

    my vote for disappointment of the season thus far is wisky, houston lost case keenum and sumlin, arky had the whole petrino fiasco and was minus their best player last saturday against the best or 2nd best team in the country, i don’t see the same excuses for a wisconsin team most thought would roll through their entire schedule not struggle w/ the first 3 creampuffs.

    that said if wisconsin turns it around these first 3 games won’t matter at all…

  2. RICKY says:

    good article….

  3. uhsigep96 says:

    Kliff was the playcaller at the Ticket City Bowl.

  4. Coug75 says:

    Good point about Levine hiring Nesbitt amounting to bufoonery

  5. v2the4 says:

    I think everyone who has any kind of pulse on the University of Houston team knew that 2012 would be a rebuilding year….look at everything UH lost off of the 13-1 team…Keenum, the career leader is darn near every NCAA qb stat….three of the four starting receivers,including Patrick Edwards Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson who were four year starters…..they lost three of the five O lineman….thats 7 players from the most prolific offense in ncaa history.

    they lost six defenders from a decent defense(by UH standards), so in total, they lost 13 of the 22 starters…13 seniors….and, with Kevin Sumlin and the ENTIRE coaching staff leaving, except Levin, all UH fans knew we wouldnt be anywhere as good as 2011…

    but, to lose to Texas St in the manner they did….to give up chunks and chunks of yards to LaTech(but this LaTech team is the UH team of last year, look how they blew out Illinois 52-24 on saturday), and to not show up vs UCLA, even though the defense played fairly well, was just inexcusable…..thats coaching..Levin needs to get some veteran experience on his staff, should he survive, because the UH roster has plenty of young talent that needs experience.

    the turnovers are what are really killing this team…all three games, UH has had two or more turnovers inside their own 20, and Piland has thrown three interceptions going in for scores….

    I think UH can still win 7 of their 9 games on the schedule…the can possibly run the table, starting with this weeks game vs Rice….Lets go Coogs, eat em up

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