We continue our preview series for the American Conference slate with the Houston Cougars, who had their perfect 2015 season thwarted by the Huskies at Pratt & Whitney Stadium this past November as UConn clinched its first bowl berth since the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
Head Coach: Tom Herman (13-1, 1 season)
2015 Result: UConn 20, Houston 17 - a nice first drive and a trick play touchdown pass helped propel the Huskies in an upset over the Cougars.
2016 Game: September 29 - @ Houston
Houston's Strengths: The Cougars had a great debut year under head coach Tom Herman, and should be even stronger in 2016. Greg Ward had a fantastic year and he returns a full complement of receivers. Demarcus Ayers always struck me as a bit overrated - the real gem on that team is Chance Allen, an Oregon transfer who has an opportunity to put up huge numbers this season.
On defense, the Cougars return the five top defensive linemen and three out of their four best linebackers, all part of a corps that was the eight best rushing defense in the country last year. This team is also very opportunistic in terms of creating turnovers, and Shirreffs' happy feet coupled with some pressure from Houston's pass rushers could lead to fumbles or interceptions.
Houston's Weaknesses: With Kenneth Farrow and 4/5 of their starting offensive line from 2015 gone, the Cougars do not have much of a running game to speak of at this point. Ward may also face pass protection issues given the newness of his linemen, and the Huskies were able to thrive there in 2015.
On defense, the Cougars lost three of their top secondary players, including first round pick William Jackson. If UConn can get some spacing with tight ends, there may be some room for them in the middle of the field to make plays.
How They Match Up: UConn won in 2015 due to great defense, timely offense, and a good deal of luck - not facing Ward definitely was helpful. However, they match up better with the 2016 Cougars better than they did with the 2015 iteration. The Huskies are great at defending the flats, and the horizontal passing game is a major part of Houston's gameplan. If they can bait some bad passes and generate pressure on Ward, they can hold serve on defense.
Offense is another story - they will need receivers and tight ends to make plays if they are to pull the upset in Houston.
Thanks to Sam Razz of the SH Podcast for diving a bit further into what the 2016 Cougars will be like.
1) What are going to be the biggest differences between last year's Houston team and this year's?
The biggest difference I would say is familiarity with the scheme and certainly conditioning. Herman specifically referred to the linemen he inherited as "gooey" which if nothing else indicates he was not satisfied with the Strength and Conditioning program of the previous staff.
There's also the familiarity with the scheme as Herman retained all of his on-field assistants except Drew Mehringer (now the Offensive Coordinator at Rutgers) and the usual advantages of being in the 2nd year with a new coaching staff versus the 1st year.
If we're talking about individual differences, the offensive line will be a lot more experienced. This team was forced to play freshmen like Kam Eloph, Will Noble and Mason Denley due to starters getting hurt. Finally, everyone raved about Greg (nee Gary) Ward Jr's ability to pass the ball during spring practices and his performance in the Red/White game confirmed that. The thought of Greg Ward Jr becoming a very good passer with his speed and ability to escape the pocket has to be scary for Cougar opponents going forward.
2) After a 13-1 season there isn't a ton of room to grow, but are you expecting to take a step up?
You're right that record-wise and even achievement-wise it's hard to build on a 13-1 record and New Year's 6 bowl win. There is a very good chance this team will be better, yet the overall record may not reflect that improvement.
This was a team that needed the biggest comeback in all of 2016 to beat Memphis at home and as Bill Connelly (and others) like to point out, the Coogs got very lucky with the percentage of fumbles recovered and deflected passes intercepted. You got to witness UH's proverbial luck run out in Hartford on that unseasonably warm November night.
I will almost guarantee UH to have the best run defense in the AAC with the return Steven Taylor, Cameron Malveaux, Nick Thurman, Tyus Bowser (yes, like the Mario villain) and the addition of high-school All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver. I despise early predictions and speaking in absolutes, but I would be shocked if the run defense isn't improved. I also expect the offensive line to improve at protecting the QB and being more consistent in the running game.
But the non-conference schedule has tough games like Oklahoma and Louisville and the proverbial target is now clearly on the Coogs' back when it comes to AAC opponents. I think 9-10 regular season wins would still represent an extremely good year.
3) This offseason saw Tom Herman's name thrown in for a few openings around the country until Houston gave him a hefty raise. How do fans feel about Houston's ability to hold on to Herman long-term?
A good percentage of Houston fans (yours truly included) are cynical about being able to hold onto the football coach. After all other in-state schools poached two recent Cougar coaches: Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin.
However, Herman has made it clear he likes living in Houston and he particularly likes working for the University of Houston's President: Dr. Renu Khator. The University not only gave him a raise, but gave him a lot more money to pay assistants. I'd imagine that's a big reason why so much of the staff stuck around. Herman realizes smartly that Houston is a lot easier job and clearer path to a NY6 bowl game.
There are many difficulties of being a school outside of the "Power 5" (I'll only type that phrase in quotations) but at UH you're an hour or so drive away in all directions from an absurd amount of Division 1 talent. Most UH fans are self-aware enough that they know without a change in conference affiliation we'll eventually lose Herman, but as long as it's to an Ohio State type school I don't think it will sting too much. Do you know who was never rumored to be leaving for any high-profile job? Our last coach Tony Levine. I'll gladly trade these (mostly unsubstantiated rumors) for having a well-regarded football coach.
4) Will there be an added edge to this year's matchup with UConn given that the Huskies ruined the Cougars' bid for a perfect season?
In a word, yes. I don't think the Coogs really overlooked the Huskies in 2015 and I attribute UConn's win to the fact that you guys had a good team that outplayed UH in all phases of the game that night. This game will definitely have some added significance come time to play. That does not worry me any less however.
What makes College Football so awesome are the specific match ups and how some teams match up horribly against others. UConn is precisely that Kryptonite if UH is the Superman of this lazy metaphor.
From what I've seen out of UConn football recently (3-4 games on TV and 1 deeply depressing game in Hartford) Bob Diaco does not tend to gamble and relies instead on guys up front winning individual match-ups and generally keeping the opposing offense in front of them at all times. This would be a decent strategy on the face of it for containing Greg Ward Jr and everything he can do if receivers are covered or if he's under pressure. I would love to see a (mostly) healthy Ward versus the Huskies defense as opposed to Kyle Postma and hopefully that's the match up we'll see in the fall.
5) I know it's super early, but can you give us your prediction for AAC East and West Division winner and conference champion?
It sounds like a homer pick, but I swear me picking Houston as the AAC West Champions is not based on my school affiliation. At least in some facet, Cincy and Memphis are both breaking in a lot of new faces or even a new coaching staff entirely. I think SMU and Tulane both have great coaches in Chad Morris and Willie Fritz but I think those teams are a year or two away from contending for even a Division title. Tulsa is shades of the same thing with Phillip Montgomery, but I expect they're good for 7 or 8 wins.
The East is a little trickier. I am having a hard time picking against South Florida. I am desperately afraid of the QB/RB combination of Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack, even with UH having such a stingy run defense. The Bulls looked very hard to beat by the end of last season. Temple is also fairly hard to pick against with a lot of guys returning off of a 10-win team.
Also, I swear this is not pandering, but UConn is a team I have an eye on as a Dark Horse (or 'Dark Husky' if you will) in the AAC East. I think Diaco has done a brilliant job building a team that suffocates the opposition. Watching that game last November in Hartford was like watching my hopes and dreams get ground into a fine dust with ball control offense. When you fancy yourself a quick strike team like the Coogs (and much of the AAC) do, there's nothing less pleasant than playing against a smart team that just sits on your teams' razzle dazzle hurry-up offense. So, that's a real drawn out way of saying I can't decide between South Florida and Temple, but won't rule out UConn.