The American Frontier: Houston

Bob Levey

While UConn won't play the Cougars until next year, the new conference foe still warrants a look.

Out of all the new teams UConn now shares a conference with, Houston probably intrigues me the most. The Cougars play in a football hotbed, they have a new stadium on the way, and they have actually made some serious noise in recent years, entering themselves into the BCS discussion on a number of occasions.

Now, UConn doesn’t actually play Houston this year, so there’s really no point in breaking down how they would potentially match up. But for the sake of getting to know our new conference brethren, here’s a look at one of The American’s most fascinating programs.

How they’ve fared: Before taking the head coaching job at Texas A&M and turning the Aggies into an overnight SEC sensation, Kevin Sumlin nearly led the Cougars to the BCS with a 13-1 record in 2011. The Cougars ultimately had to settle for a bid to the TicketCity Bowl, where they beat Penn State 30-14.

After Sumlin left, new head coach Tony Levine took over and led the Cougars to a 5-7 record in his first season. If there is anything you could say about his first campaign is that, one way or the other, Houston’s games were always high scoring affairs.

Last year, the Cougars offense averaged 32.4 points and 480 yards of total offense per game, while their defense game up 36 points and 482 yards of total offense per game. To put it into perspective, the Cougars scored 28 or more points in nine of their 12 games, and they wound up losing four of them.

Probably the most egregious example was their game against SMU, when the Cougars lost 72-42. In many respects, last year’s Houston team almost seemed like the anti-UConn, an explosive team on offense that just couldn’t stop anybody.

How they look: Houston’s offense looks like it’s going to be just as potent as last year, as the team will be returning 10 starters on offense and nearly all of its top receivers. Notably, quarterback David Piland will be entering his third season as starter after throwing for 2,929 passing yards and 16 touchdowns last year, and all indications suggest he should be just as productive again this year.

On defense, Houston is hoping new defensive coordinator David Gibbs can help turn things around, and despite losing defensive back D.J. Hayden to the first round of the NFL Draft, the secondary will still be anchored by former freshman All-American Trevon Stewart. So there is some reason for optimism going into the new year.

How they match up: Since Houston and UConn won’t play until next year, the biggest way Houston could impact UConn this coming season is in the standings. The Cougars were picked to finish sixth in the conference’s preseason media poll, and if the season plays out the way many expect, Houston and UConn could wind up jockeying for position in the conference’s bowl hierarchy.

Houston could also become a factor late in the season too, given that it plays UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati late in the year. If the Cougars were to upset any of those teams, it could potentially change the whole complexion of the conference championship picture.

What’s going to happen: Having never watched the team play, it’s tough to make an informed call, but for some reason I feel good about this team and I think they’ll be one of the stronger teams in the conference this year. If the defense improves and the offense keeps humming, I think it’s a safe bet to say this team could easily snag a bowl bid, although I don’t think they have enough talent to make a run at Louisville or Cincinnati.

Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 (4-4)

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