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Can Houston Win the AAC in 2015?

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding the Houston Cougars this offseason, thanks in large part to the arrival of new head coach Tom Herman.

The former Ohio State offensive coordinator and 2014 Broyles Award winner was one of the most coveted head coach candidates in the country, so hiring him was a massive victory for Houston, which hopes that he’ll be able to lead the program into the upper echelon of the AAC. The good news for Herman is that he’s inheriting a team that’s loaded with enough talent to potentially make a run at a conference title right out of the gate.

Defensively, Houston will give opposing offensive coordinators nightmares.

Seven starters, including all four in the secondary, return to a unit that ranked 15th nationally in scoring defense (20.6 points per game) and 20th in total defense (343.4 yards per game) last season.

Among those returning are safeties Adrian McDonald (75 tackles, five interceptions, three forced fumbles) and Trevon Stewart (56 tackles, three interceptions), cornerback William Jackson (37 tackles, two interceptions) and linebacker Steven Taylor (76 tackles, nine tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles).

Sept. 7, 2013 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S - Temple player JALEN FRITZPATRICK (5) is tackled by Houston players ADRIAN MCDONALD (16) and TREVON STEWART (23) during the game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia

Sept. 7, 2013 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S – Temple player JALEN FRITZPATRICK (5) is tackled by Houston players ADRIAN MCDONALD (16) and TREVON STEWART (23) during the game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia

The defense is clearly in great shape, but the Cougars’ conference title hopes may hinge on the performance of the offense, where running back Kenneth Farrow is among the returning starters.

Farrow rushed for 1,037 yards and a conference-high 15 touchdowns in 2014, and he could be even better this year. He’s been named to the watch lists for both the Maxwell Award and the Doak Walker Award, and was named a preseason all-AAC first-team selection by Phil Steele.

Farrow seems like a sure bet to once again be a solid contributor for the Cougars, but it’s quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. that could really be the deciding factor as to just how good the offense can be.

Ward replaced John O’Korn under center early last season and was quite successful for a guy who started the year at wide receiver. In his eight games at quarterback, Ward threw for 2,010 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 67.3 percent passing, and also added 573 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

There’s clearly still ample room for improvement for Ward, and improvement will be necessary if the Cougars are going to make a run at a conference title, but he’s the type of dual-threat quarterback that can thrive in a Tom Herman offense.

Houston’s schedule also sets up nicely, with the toughest conference road game coming against UCF and pivotal November matchups against Cincinnati, Memphis and Navy all being played at home.

There are question marks for the Cougars due to inexperience at both wide receiver and on the offensive line, but they still are one of the most talented teams in the AAC. In fact, Houston was picked to finish second in the West division at the recent AAC media day, trailing only Memphis, whose only conference loss last year came at the hands of the Cougars.

Houston received 10 first-place votes and ended up just four points behind the Tigers.

All the pieces are in place for the Cougars to make a run to the inaugural AAC Conference Championship Game in Herman’s first year at the helm. Only time will tell if that dream becomes a reality, but no one should be surprised to see Houston in the mix come late November.

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