OVERVIEW: Expectations were sky-high heading into last season because of the presence of senior QB Case Keenum, who was being mentioned as a Heisman candidate after he threw for 5,671 yards and 44 TDs in the Cougars' pass-happy attack in 2009. But Keenum injured his knee in the third game and missed the rest of the season. His backup, Cotton Turner, was lost for the season in the same game, and the Cougars settled for a 5-7 record. They still threw the heck out of the ball, but 20 interceptions cost them dearly. No matter how sophisticated a passing attack, 20 picks can't be overcome.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can QB Case Keenum regain his 2009 form? He had a monster season in '09, throwing for 5,672 yards and 44 TDs. But a severe knee injury last season in Game 3 against UCLA wrecked Houston's season. How sharp can he be, especially early in the season?
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Keenum proves that he is all the way back, and the Cougars have their breakthrough season one year later than expected. If Keenum is all the way back, the schedule is such that this team - defensive warts and all - can go unbeaten.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Keenum can't regain his form and a bad defense drags down the whole team. Games that are eminently winnable instead become losses and Houston spends the holidays at home again.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Watch the defensive numbers. The Cougars allowed 208.8 rushing yards per game and 432.8 total yards per game last season; each figure needs to drop by about 20 this season. In addition, keep an eye on Keenum, who could become the NCAA career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes with a "normal" season.
BACKFIELD: This will be one of the best backfields in the nation - and perhaps the most productive. Keenum was granted a sixth season of eligibility and should come out firing. He doesn't have the strongest arm, but he is extremely well-versed in the offense and knows where his receivers are at all times. He has a legitimate chance to set NCAA career marks in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes. Turner and David Piland, who ended up starting eight games as a true freshman last season, also return. Keenum will be ably complemented in the backfield by TBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes, who combined for 1,499 yards and 20 TDs last season. Houston also will have TB Charles Sims, who ran for 698 yards and nine TDs as a freshman in 2009 before sitting out last season for academic reasons. In short, the Cougars are loaded.
RECEIVERS: As if that tailback group wasn't enough, there are some playmakers here, as well. Patrick Edwards had 71 receptions for 1,100 yards and 13 TDs last season, while Tyron Carrier had 53 catches for 480 yards as the No. 3 guy. Expect Carrier to increase his production with Keenum back in the picture. Carrier had 80 catches in 2008 and 91 in '09. While Carrier and Edwards are small guys, Houston also has some bigger receivers. Senior Justin Johnson has a chance to become the Cougars' No. 3 receiver this season; he has 33 career catches and could match that total this fall. Redshirt freshman DeAndre Perry could get into the mix.
LINE: Just two starters return, and one of those, Chris Thompson, is moving from guard to center. Thompson will be a four-year starter and is an all-league contender. LT Jacolby Ashworth has started 15 of the 16 games in which he has participated the past two seasons; his brother, Jermichael Finley, is a tight end for the Green Bay Packers. Two redshirt freshmen emerged from spring ball as starters on the right side in G Bryce Redman and T Rowdy Harper, and, hey, how can you go wrong with an offensive lineman named "Rowdy"? Harper's real first name is Randy. Coaches are high on Redman and Harper, but this, by far, is the most worrisome position offensively.
OVERVIEW: The Cougars brought in Brian Stewart from the NFL to serve as coordinator last season. Houston was 103rd (432.8 ypg) in total defense, 68th (224.1 ypg) in pass defense and 114th (208.8 ypg) in rushing defense. As bad as those numbers were, there was incremental progress in each category from 2009: Houston had ranked 111th (453.1 ypg), 72nd (224.7 ypg) and 115th (226.6 ypg), respectively, the previous season. The scoring defense numbers actually got worse, though, from 30.1 ppg in 2009 to 32.2 last season. Obviously, there still is work to do in Stewart's 3-4 alignment. He expects his linebackers to make plays, and those guys - for the most part - came through last season and should be the strength of the unit again this season.
LINE: New line coach Carlton Hall arrives from Harvard, and he'll oversee a unit that has potential at end but a lot of questions at nose tackle. The projected starter at tackle is Tyrone Campbell, who spent part of last season at end. His backup is redshirt freshman Austin Lansford, though JC transfer Dominic Smith could provide some help. There could be a nice rotation at end if everyone is healthy. Senior E David Hunter is being counted on for big plays and leadership, and converted LB Kelvin King has some pass-rush skills. Redshirt freshman Eric Braswell and sophomore Zeke Riser, who was injured and missed spring practice, also will see time.
LINEBACKERS: Sammy Brown arrived from junior college last season with much acclaim, and he had a solid season. He was third on the team with 76 tackles and had a team-high 7.5 sacks and a league-high 20 tackles for loss. The other two returning full-time starters are senior Marcus McGraw, who enters the season with 369 career tackles, and junior Phillip Steward, who had 84 tackles, two picks, seven pass breakups and five pass breakups last season. Efrem Oliphant moved into the starting lineup for the final three games as a freshman last season, and coaches like his speed and playmaking ability. He had 15 tackles in the Cougars' narrow loss to Tulsa. While the starters look good, depth is questionable. Houston did sign two JC transfers who could provide backup help in Lloyd Allen and Everett Daniels.
SECONDARY: The projected starters at corner are Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden, teammates at national junior college champion Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas; they enrolled in time for spring practice. Both have good size and better come through because depth looks non-existent. The third corner likely will be Jeffery Lewis, who was a tailback last season. FS Nick Saenz is the only returning starter in the secondary, and he missed spring drills after shoulder surgery. He has been a starter since the last game of his freshman season and is a steadying influence. Kent Brooks would start if Saenz isn't ready for the start of the season. The new strong safety likely will be one of two sophomores: Colton Valencia, a transfer from Texas A&M, or D.J. Jones, whose playing time last season came almost exclusively on special teams.
Junior K Matt Hogan returns after going 14-of-17 last season; his longest make was from 49 yards, but he was 1-of-4 overall from beyond 40. He is 26-of-29 in his career. P Richie Leone averaged 41.4 yards in his first season as the regular punter. He also served as the kickoff specialist and did a solid job in that role. Houston has extremely dangerous return men. Carrier averaged 23.5 yards per kickoff return and returned one 91 yards for a score. Carrier has six kickoff-return TDs in his career; the NCAA record is seven by former Clemson TB C.J. Spiller. Edwards averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and took one back for a TD. The coverage units need a lot of work, though.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 74th
Buzz: Coach Kevin Sumlin has made the university's home city a priority. The staff has done a good job of keeping targets from greater Houston from going elsewhere. Two of the top high school programs in the city - Lamar and North Shore - have been hot spots for the Cougars. The Lamar trio of Kourtlandt Akins, Earl Foster and Bram Kohlhausen signed with Houston in February while Sumlin has signed Derrick Mathews and Alton Demby the past two years from North Shore. It is that focus that has Houston back on the winning track. - BRIAN PERRONI
It's hard to pick against a lineman who prefers to go by "Rowdy," but it had better be one of the two new cornerbacks, Bennett or Hayden. Neither put up eye-popping stats in junior college - Bennett had 66 tackles and three picks in two seasons, while Hayden had 58 tackles and the same number of interceptions - but they fill a huge position of need. Brown had a big-time impact last season after transferring in from a JC, and Houston needs one of these corners to have the same type of impact.
The Cougars should be a strong contender for the Conference USA West Division title along with SMU and Tulsa. Houston gets those two in back-to-back weeks to close out the regular season, with the SMU game at home. The Cougars miss C-USA East title contenders Southern Miss and UCF in the division crossover games, and the non-conference schedule isn't that tough, though two of those games (North Texas and Louisiana Tech) are on the road. Houston opens with UCLA at home. Keenum blew out his knee against the Bruins last season. The first 10 games are against teams that finished with losing records last season.
Last season was supposed to be a big one for the Cougars, and there even was some talk of them being a possible "BCS-buster." Alas, those dreams were dashed when Keenum was hurt. This offseason, the Cougars have been flying under the radar, but if Keenum can regain his 2009 form, this could be a big season for coach Kevin Sumlin and his team. The schedule isn't difficult - hey, when UCLA is your toughest non-conference opponent, you're living large - and the offense could be lethal. The defense is going to be bad. Again. But it may not matter if the offense can put up 40 a week. Unless the defense regresses, expect at least eight wins.
For more on Houston now and throughout the season, check out CougarsDen.com