2011 Record: 13-1 (Conference USA 8-1)
2011 Bowl Result: Beat Penn St 30-14 in Ticket City Bowl
Head Coach: Tony Levine
Returning Starters: (Offense 5, Defense 6)
Last season, the Houston Cougars were 13-1. The only loss was costly though. The 12-0 Cougars hosted Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship game. A win would have given Houston their first ever BCS Bowl berth. However, Houston lost that game 49-28 thanks to Southern Miss returning a blocked punt and an interception for touchdowns. The Cougars had to settle for the TicketCity Bowl instead of a likely trip to the Sugar Bowl. Houston beat Penn St 30-14 in the game, which we didn’t know at the time would be the last bowl game for a long time for Penn St.
That Houston team is completely different from the one that will take the field this fall. Head coach Kevin Sumlin left to become the head coach at Texas A&M. Record breaking quarterback Case Keenum is also gone, along with the top 4 receivers, two of the top 3 running backs, and two of their best linebackers as well. New head coach Tony Levine was the special teams coordinator last year and also coached the tight ends and receivers. He was the interim coach for the bowl game after Sumlin left. Levine had never been a head coach at any level before that game.
Besides the new players and coaches, 2012 will be the last year in Conference USA for the Cougars and in their current stadium. Houston leaves for the Big East next year, and will also move into a new bigger stadium.
Let’s take a look at the offense, defense, special teams, and the schedule.
Mike Nesbitt becomes the new offensive coordinator under Levine. Nesbitt ran the same offense Houston does as the coordinator at West Texas A&M University. However, every coach adds some some new wrinkles to each system.
Redshirt sophomore David Piland will take over at quarterback for Keenum. He has big shoes to fill as Keenum passed for over 5,600 yards with 48 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, and also ran for 3 touchdowns last year. Piland redshirted last year but did play 8 games in 2010 when Keenum tore his ACL. He completed 58.3% of his passes for 2,641 yards with 24 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He was sacked 4 times and had a QB rating of 137.6. Houston went 2-6 in those games after going 3-1 under Keenum.
Junior Charles Sims was the leading rusher last season, and returns this season. Sims had 110 carries for 821 yards with 9 touchdown runs. he averaged 7.2 yards a carry. He also caught 51 passes for 575 yards and 4 touchdowns, and is the top returning receiver. Houston must replace running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall who combined for over 1,000 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Hayes also caught 44 passes and 4 touchdowns. Look for redshirt freshman Kenneth Farrow to back-up Sims, but Farrow will get plenty of carries and catches from the backfield. The running back is important in Houston’s Air Raid offense not only for the rushing numbers but also because of the balls they catch out of the backfield.
Outside of Sims, no other returning receiver caught more than 16 passes last season. The top four receivers are gone after accounting for 299 catches and 39 touchdowns last season. Senior receiver Ronnie Williams caught 16 passes last season for 138 yards and a touchdown. Junior Dewayne Peace and Sophomore Daniel Spencer both played sparingly last season, but should grab starting spots. Gino Collins, Isaiah Sweeney, Marcus Williams, Xavier Maxwell, and Deontay Greenberry will also get targets along with the running backs. Houston threw the ball 49 times a game in 2011, so expect similar numbers from Piland. My point is there will be plenty of balls to go around.
The offensive line returns 4 starters who have played in 71 combined games. The Cougars do have to replace All-Conference USA center Chris Thompson though. The line allowed only 18 sacks last year and Houston had almost 700 pass attempts last year. Tackle Jacolby Ashworth was second team All-Conference last year.
Last season, Houston was awful on defense through the first 5 games. Aside from a shutout against FCS Georgia St, the Cougars gave up 33 points and 457 yards a game to their first 4 FBS opponents. The low point was against UTEP when they gave 42 points and 538 yards. Yes, the Cougars won 49-42, but the defense improved a lot as the season went on. In the next game against East Carolina, they allowed only 3 points and 284 yards. The difference was the players grasped the new 3-4 defense that then coordinator Brian Stewart installed last season. Overall, Houston ended up second nationally in tackles for loss, fifth in passes defended, and third in interceptions. They were 35th in points allowed. Bottom line is, the defense gambled a lot with aggressive blitzes. When the gambles worked, they were a strong defense, when they didn’t Houston was vulnerable to big plays.
New defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant was the linebackers coach last season. He will return the Cougars to a 4-3 scheme.
The line will be led by nose tackle Dominic Miller and right end Eric Braswell. If they can adjust to the new system, they should be effective.However, the lack of tackles in the system could lead to an undersized line as converted linebackers will have to play on the line. They should be able to make up for the lack of size with speed.
The linebackers were the strength of the unit last year, and this year should be no exception. Linebackers Marcus McGraw, Derrick Matthews, Sammy Brown and Phillip Steward had a combined 313.5 tackles, including 62.5 for loss and 18.5 sacks, and also knocked down 26 passes. McGraw and Brown are gone, but Matthews and Steward return. Trevon Randle and Efrem Oliphant should also see a lot of action, either at linebacker or on the defensive line.
The secondary must replace strong safety Nick Saenz, but the other three starters return. D.J. Hayden, Zachary McMillan, and Thomas Bates come back to the secondary. Hayden defended 13 passes last year and also had 2 interceptions and forced 5 fumbles.
Kicker Matt Hogan and punter Richie Leone both return along with the long snapper and holder. Hogan made 13 of 17 field goals with a long of 38 yards. He only attempted 2 kicks of 40 yards or more. Hogan did make an incredible 91 of 92 extra points. Leone averaged 41.1 yards per punt on 51 attempts. He had 7 touchbacks and 15 inside the 20. He forced 18 fair catches. Leone will likely handle kickoffs as well after he had 5 touchbacks in 35 attempts last season.
The Cougars must replace kick returner Tyron Carrier and punt returner Patrick Edwards. The unit returned two punts and a kick for touchdowns last year. Wide receivers Dewayne Peace and Damien Payne and possibly running back Sims will be the likely return specialists. Payne returned a punt for a touchdown last year in only 5 punt returns. He had an average return of 21.6 yards.
The Houston Cougars’ schedule isn’t too rough. They open at home against Texas St, who moves from FCS to the WAC this season. Then defending WAC Champion champion Louisiana Tech comes to Houston. The Cougars then travel to a rebuilding UCLA team. Houston gets a bye before they play cross-town rival Rice at Reliant Stadium (where the NFL’s Texans play.) Houston closes out the non-conference schedule by hosting North Texas from the Sun Belt. Houston has other conference games at home against UAB, UTEP, Tulsa, and Tulane, and travels to SMU, East Carolina, and Marshall.
With new players at most of the skill positions, and a new coaching staff, some drop off is to be expected from 13-1 a year ago. However, the schedule is favorable, and 9 or 10 wins is a good possibility. The young Cougars do have tough games against Louisiana Tech, UCLA, SMU, and Tulsa. Trips to East Carolina and Marshall sandwiched around the showdown with Tulsa could be a little tricky. Tulsa should be their main competition for the C-USA West Division title.
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