2009 CFN Houston Preview

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Houston Cougars

Houston Cougars

Preview 2010

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Kevin Sumlin
3rd year: 18-9
Returning Lettermen
Off. 21, Def. 21, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best Houston Players
1. QB Case Keenum, Sr.
2. WR James Cleveland, Sr.
3. LB Marcus McGraw, Jr.
4. WR Tyron Carrier, Jr.
5. WR Patrick Edwards, Jr.
6. RB Bryce Beall, Jr.
7. DE David Hunter, Jr.
8. G Chris Thompson, Jr.
9. CB Jamal Robinson, Jr.
10. LB Phillip Steward, Soph.
2010 Schedule

Sept. 4 Texas State
Sept. 10 UTEP
Sept. 18 at UCLA
Sept. 25 Tulane
Oct. 9 Miss State
Oct. 16 at Rice
Oct. 23 at SMU
Oct. 30 at Memphis
Nov. 5 UCF
Nov. 13 Tulsa
Nov. 20 at Southern Miss
Nov. 27 at Texas Tech

After only two seasons, Kevin Sumlin has succeeded in turning Houston into a national entity. Now, the coach is determined to elevate this program beyond just a high-octane novelty act.

Last year was a strange one for the Cougars, which had more highs and lows than the NASDAQ. The same program that shocked Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in September, rising all the way to No. 12, couldn't win Conference USA. Heck, it was thoroughly embarrassed in the Armed Forces Bowl by Air Force, 47-20, allowing 563 yards and throwing six picks. So which is it, Houston? Are you the school that looks as if it belongs in the Big 12 South or the one that couldn't solve UTEP and UCF?

Houston, like most programs across the country, is an incomplete product. The dynamic offense ensures that it can beat anyone. Yet, a dreadful defense means it can lose to anyone as well. The good news is that QB Case Keenum is back to engineer the country's highest scoring offense and continue rewriting the record books. He's surrounded by an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, so few teams will slow down the Cougars again this fall.

Whether Houston's ceiling is the West Division or the Fiesta Bowl depends on how far the defense can come under first-year coordinator Brian Stewart. Last season, the Cougars ranked 115th nationally versus the run, which too often neutralized the work of Keenum and his cohorts. The unit will continue having issues, but if it shows any progress at forcing more punts and making third down stops, Houston's trajectory will dramatically change.

Sumlin won eight games in his debut and 10 in his second year. Not one to ever become content, he's searching for a new level of success, which includes a conference title. Heck, if the defense starts pulling its weight, that offense has enough firepower to really begin dreaming big in 2010.

What to watch for on offense: The offensive line. While the Cougars are well above the curve at quarterback, running back, and receiver, the line is cause for some hand-wringing. The situation really became unsettling when RT Jarve Dean, a second team all-star, was dismissed before the spring. Although three starters are back, filling the void at tackle will either require some shuffling or a redshirt freshman to be thrust into the spotlight. Either way, Houston is going to be precariously thin and vulnerable against opponents with talented defensive lines.

What to watch for on defense: An alignment shift. The hiring of Brian Stewart away from the Philadelphia Eagles also ushered in a shift from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Considering the program's inability to amass gobs of talent up front, it makes sense. Stewart will be playing to the personnel he inherits, leveraging the speed and general lack of size on this side of the ball. The key will be finding an adequate nose tackle to man the middle of the line. Tyrone Campbell has been here longer, but transfer Matangi Tonga could end up having a breakthrough year in his only season of eligibility.

This team will be far better if … the defense can force more punts. Houston was 97th nationally in third down conversion defense, which essentially meant too many long drives and too many gassed Cougars. Hey, no one is expecting Big 12 quality out of this group, but if the program is going to elevate, it has to make more stops, particularly against the run. The faster it gets the ball to the offense, the quicker Houston can put its opponent out of reach.

The Schedule: The Cougars are certainly going to be tested in non-conference play after an opening day layup against Texas State. They have to deal with road trips to UCLA and Texas Tech along with a home game against Mississippi State. The key, of course, will be the conference play and having to face Southern Miss and UCF from the East is a bad break, but the Tulsa game is at home. The biggest issue will be the second half of the season with five of the final seven games on the road including a midseason three-game stretch with the key West game against SMU wrapped around dates at Rice and Memphis.

Best Offensive Player: Senior QB Case Keenum. Keenum is the next in a long line of prolific Cougar quarterbacks that's included Kevin Kolb, Andre Ware, and David Klingler. The perfect fit for an offense that requires its quarterback to have a quick release, quick feet, and make quick decisions, he's on the verge of becoming the NCAA's all-time leader in total offense and passing yards. More than just the back-to-back seasons of 44 touchdown passes and more than 5,000 yards through the air, he's the undisputed leader and face of this program.

Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Marcus McGraw. Yeah, he'll get lost on a mediocre defense and doesn't fit the prototype at linebacker, but, boy, does he make a ton of plays for the Cougars. Playing at a different speed than those around him, he followed up a terrific debut by making a league-high 156 tackles, nine tackles for loss, four sacks, and three forced fumbles. While only 6-0 and 210 pounds, he plays much bigger than his size and is never far from the action.

Key player to a successful season: Senior DE Matangi Tonga. Heck, he's not even a sure thing to start, but he's still going to be plenty valuable to the beleaguered Houston defense. As the Cougars shift to a 3-4, they desperately need a rock up front, who can occupy multiple blockers and create some traffic on running plays. Before signing with BYU and transferring to College of San Mateo (Calif.), Tonga was a decorated recruit, with a bright future as a run-stuffer. If he can even approach those dated expectations, he'll have a huge impact on the 2010 squad.

The season will be a success if ... Houston wins Conference USA. No one else will be ranked when the season begins and no one else is better, so anything less than a league title will be a disappointment. Not only will the Cougars be favored again to win the West, but back-to-back East Division champ East Carolina is moving forward without head coach Skip Holtz and a ton of senior talent. The bar is set at the Liberty Bowl, with a BCS bowl bid not completely out of the discussion.

Key game: Sept. 18 at UCLA. Just how far will Keenum and the offense carry Houston this season? After opening with Texas State and UTEP, a trip to Pasadena will begin to answer that question. While the Bruins are not an elite Pac-10 program these days, this is still a high-profile opportunity for the Cougars to spread its brand to the West Coast and impress leery voters. From a conference perspective, the Oct. 23 trip to Dallas to play up-and-coming SMU will be a doozy, with serious West Division implications.

2009 Fun Stats:
- Touchdown passes: Houston 47 – Opponents 15
- Rushing yards per game: Houston 162 – Opponents 75
- Sacks: Washington State 13 - Opponents 53

- 2010 Houston Preview | 2010 Houston Offense
- 2010 Houston Defense | 2010 Houston Depth Chart
- Houston Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

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