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Bombs Away: A Preview of the 2010 Houston Cougars Football Team

Note: For the Houston fan perspective, check out Part 1 of the UH Preview- Great Expectations: Talking Houston Football with Dustin from Scott & Holman.

A Look Back

I don't see any better way to kick off Miner Rush's C-USA previews than to start with the team many expect to win it all, the Houston Cougars. Last season, the Cougars shocked the country when they went to Oklahoma State and stunned the #5 Cowboys. Then, the Coogs went back home and out-Leached Texas Tech to catapult to #12 in the national rankings. No non-AQ football club had ever opened the season with two marquee wins like that. It appeared that Houston would only have to survive a top heavy Conference USA slate to secure, at the very least, a birth to a BCS bowl. Then, it all came tumbling down. The UTEP Miners defied the NCAA Football Odds and shocked Houston by exposing their defense's inability to stop the run (Donald Buckram exploded for 262 yards and 4 td's on the ground). Houston finished the season 115th in the nation (out of 120 teams) in rushing defense. Obviously, Houston's defensive struggles plagued the team for the rest of the year, but their offensive firepower was enough to push UH into the C-USA Championship game.

Then, the Cougar's reliable offense began to stall at the most inopportune time of the year. Case Keenum tossed three interceptions in the C-USA Championship Game loss to East Carolina. Then, in the Armed Forces Bowl, Keenum tossed six more INT"s as Houston lost 47-20 to Air Force.

Prior to his final two games, Keenum had been decimating everybody in his path. Generally, a quarterback who runs a variation of the spread offense, at schools like Hawaii, Texas Tech, or Houston, are eliminated from any Heisman or NFL talk. The "system" label is often too hard for a quarterback to shake. Keenum, however, appeared capable of bucking that trend. ESPN and other outlets blames the UTEP loss on Houston's defense and Keenum was playing games in November with the Heisman a distinct possibility. The Cougars started 2009 as hot as any team in the country, but perhaps, in the end, the Coogs weren't quite ready for prime time. After a whirlwind off-season, and with a senior Heisman candidate at quarterback, Houston enters 2010 as the league favorite.

The Basics

Head Coach: Kevin Sumlin (18-9 overall, 12-5 C-USA)

The Staff: As Miner fans know, when a C-USA team wins in any sport, school's with deeper pockets will come calling for your coaching talent. While Kevin Sumlin drew interest from Tennessee and other national programs, Houston was able to weather the storm. As far as coordinators, the Cougars weren't so lucky. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen moved on to take the same job at Oklahoma State. Sumlin chose to promote from within and replace him with Jason Phillips who had been co-offensive coordinator for the prior two seasons. Phillips job is entirely to "not screw it up." I wouldn't expect new wrinkles in the UH scheme, the offense should be very similar to what torched most of the C-USA, and Big 12 South, last season.

Houston's defensive struggles led Sumlin to dismiss defensive coordinator John Skladany. Brian Stewart, former defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys was brought in to revamp Houston's defense. Stewart promises to run a blitz heavy, aggressive 3-4 defense.

2009 Record: 10-4 (Lost in Armed Services Bowl to the Air Force Falcons)

The Offense

Returning Starters: Offense 7

Key Losses: RB Charles Sims, WR A.J. Dugat, Tackle Jarve Dean

Eligibility issues and off-season rules violations dealt the Cougars some tough losses. Running back Charles Sims has been declared ineligible for all of this coming season by the NCAA. Sims had a stellar 2009 season and his loss really can't be understated. Not only did he lead Houston in rushing with just under 700 yards and rushing touchdowns with 9, but he also caught 70 passes out of the backfield. The team's fourth leading receiver, Sims was Houston's home-run hitter, a threat every time he touched the ball. The only real silver lining for UH fans is that Sims is expected to rejoin the team in 2011.

Back in February, Sumlin dismissed heralded wide receiver A.J. Dugat and lineman Jarve Dean from the team for an unspecified violation of team policy. Dugat, a Parade All-American recruit coming out of high school was considered the star of Sumlin's 2009 class. Fortunately, wide receiver is the one position where Houston could probably afford to lose their best long term prospect as the Coogs return three 1,000 yard receivers (James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards).

In March, Sumlin also dismissed RT Jarve Dean from the team for a violation of team policy. Dean, a 2009 All-Conference USA Second Team selection, was a fixture on the Houston offensive line and tied a team record by playing in all 14 games last season. This would have been Dean's senior season.

Key Returnees: Keenum, RB Bryce Beall, LT Roy Watts, WR's James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards

The star of the show is undoubtedly Case Keenum. The senior quarterback didn't just finish first in every major passing category nationally last season, he blew away the competition. Take a look at Keenum's numbers from last season.

NCAA Rank Keenum Next Best
Passing Yards 1 5.671 yards 4,051 (Tyler Sheehan, Bowling Green)
Touchdowns 1 44 33 (Max Hall, BYU)
Attempts 1 700 575 (Sheehan)
Completions 1 492 373 (Sheehan)
Completion % 2 70.29 Only Keenum & Colt McCoy were over 70%
Passing YPG 1 405.07 327.23 9 (Levi Brown, Troy)
Efficiency 6 154.79

While the quarterback and skill players get all the press, know that Houston returns four offensive lineman that saw significant action last season including tackles. Roy Watts and Jacolby Ashworth, guard Chris Thompson and center Jordan Shoemaker. Watts was a super recruit coming out of high school and started his career at Texas before transferring to a JC. He finally landed at Houston and emerged as a stellar LT last year early on in the season. The offensive line only allowed Case Keenum to be sacked 1.3 times a game, good for 24th best in the country.

With Charles Sims now declared ineligible for 2010, the Coogs will go back to their 2009 starter Bryce Beall. Beall, the C-USA Freshman of the Year in 2009 was hampered by injuries and lost his starting spot as Sim's emerged as a star. In 2009, Beall rushed for 1,247 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. A vital part of Houston's offense is the screen game. Sims caught 70 passes last season. Beall, in his breakout freshman campaign only pulled in 34 receptions. It will be interesting to see if he can increase his production catching passes out of the backfield.

The Defense

Returning Starters: 4

Key Returnees: LB Marcus McGraw; DL David Hunter, DB Jamal Robinson, Sr

McGraw, a junior, is Houston's best defensive player. In 2009, he was named to the All-Conference USA second team and was a Freshman selection in 2009. He led the Cougars with 156 tackles (75 solo) and finished second on the team with nine tackles for a loss and four sacks. McGraw seems to save his best performances for the teams biggest games. In the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force, he tallied an incredible 16.5 tackles (10 solo). He had 10 more stops in the C-USA Championship game.

Houston's 2009 struggles on defense were almost entirely related to porous run defense. The secondary, anchored by Jamal Robinson, was actually pretty good when compared to the rest of the C-USA. The Coogs finished second in the league in pass defense. Robinson was among the league's best with 5 interceptions.

Houston's 2009 Defensive End of Year Ranks

Stat Houston C-USA Rank NCAA Rank
Total Defense 451.29 ypg 9 111
Scoring Defense 30.07 7 95
Rushing Defense 226.57 ypg 12 115
Pass Defense 224.71 ypg 2 72
Sacks 1.64 pg 8 85

Now, you see why John Skladany was shown the door. To revamp Houston's defense, Sumlin brought in long time NFL assistant Brian Stewart. Stewart was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys for two years. He promises to bring in an aggressive, blitz heavy 3-4 defense. Really, whatever he does, the defense can't be much worse than it was last season. Miner fans will get an early look at Stewart's new defense as the teams square off in Week 2 - in a rare Friday night game which was moved to accommodate ESPN. Which brings me to...

The Schedule: Bring It On

Opponent TV Date
Texas State 9/4/2010
UTEP Miners ESPN 9/10/2010
at UCLA Bruins 9/18/2010
Tulane Green Wave
Mississippi St. Bulldogs
at Rice Owls 10/16/2010
at SMU Mustangs 10/23/2010
at Memphis Tigers 10/30/2010
Central Florida Golden Knights ESPN 11/5/2010
Tulsa Golden Hurricane 11/13/2010
at Southern Miss. Golden Eagles 11/20/2010
at Texas Tech Red Raiders 11/20/2010

The Cougar faithful expect big things out of this team and the schedule really couldn't be any better for a BCS run. There are three BCS teams on board, two of which Houston will be favored to beat, and one that will draw eyeballs and interest to close out the season. You have to credit Houston for their non-conference scheduling. Sure, UCLA and Mississippi State may not be dominating their respective BCS conferences, but wins against middling BCS schools count a lot more to voters than wins against anybody in the C-USA. Texas Tech might be a mystery now, considering their very public coaching change, but a season ending clash in Lubbock is a tough game regardless of who's walking the other sideline- especially if Raider quarterback Steven Sheffield is healthy in 2010. As for their C-USA slate, the Cougars get UTEP and Tulsa at home and don't play at a hostile C-USA road venue.

The Bottom Line

Houston brings back a majority of the nation's strongest offense from last season. The offensive scheme won't change much, if at all. If Case Keenum continues his record setting pace, and the defense improves even marginally, the Cougar's should be in contention for the C-USA title. Are they capable of more? A BCS Bowl? I don't know. Maybe. I think we'll all have to see how their defense looks early on before we can make that estimation. I do know that Brian Stewart's defense will face a heck of a test when Donald Buckram & Co. travel down to Houston for their Friday Night clash.