Team: Houston Cougars
2014 record: 8-5 (5-3 AAC)
Recap: Houston went 21-17 in the three years following Kevin Sumlin’s departure, and while Tony Levine was able to accomplish back-to-back eight-win seasons, it wasn’t enough to keep his job.
Despite a 7-1 start in 2013, the Cougars broke down and finished with just one more win. In 2014, they opened the regular season with an awful performance against a UTSA Roadrunners team that ended up going 4-8—in their brand new TDECU Stadium, nonetheless. That was just the start of one of the more frustratingly inconsistent programs in the nation, as UH went on to beat Memphis and Temple on the road while suffering another perplexing home loss to Tulane and needing a 25-point fourth-quarter comeback to beat Pitt in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Levine kept the ship afloat with solid recruiting and a winning culture, but he wasn’t the right guy to sustain the momentum left by Art Briles and Sumlin.
Tom Herman is.
Thanks to Levine and his former staff, both Herman and his national championship ring inherit a roster that is built to win now. He’ll have the opportunity to take what he learned from Urban Meyer and build a mid-major version of Ohio State—and he might not have to wait very long until there are noticeable similarities.
Key player: Greg Ward Jr., Jr., QB
Herman definitely isn’t walking into a bad situation at quarterback. He might not be Braxton Miller—hey, wait a second, isn’t that guy supposed to have transferred by now?—but Greg Ward, Jr. could be considered a poor man’s version of the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Ward started at receiver the first five games of the 2014 season before switching over to QB, where he went 6-2 and combined for 2,583 yards (322.9 per game) with 18 touchdowns. He’s still duking it out with Utah transfer Adam Schulz, but my guess is that he’ll prove to be a much better fit for Herman’s up-tempo scheme.
Biggest strength: Versatility in the backfield
Not only will Herman have Ward’s dual-threat abilities to work with, but he also gets senior running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, who combined for 1,647 yards (5.5 ypc) and 19 touchdowns in 2014. They’re also threats in the passing game, as the two totaled 45 receptions for 348 yards and three more scores in a pass offense that wasn’t all that dynamic. At Ohio State, Herman’s offense tailored to the run game via the power spread. If he brings the same mentality to H-Town—and he might have to, as the receiver unit is vastly unproven—we could be looking at three 1,000-yard rushers this fall.
Biggest weakness: Offensive line
Right tackle Alex Cooper and left tackle Zach Johnson—who is coming off ACL surgery, at that—are the only two locks on a line that finished 101st nationally in sacks allowed (34.0). Luckily, a lot of those came when John O’Korn was under center, and the running game was still able to do some damage at a little over 180 yards per game (including sacks).
Most important game: vs. Cincinnati (Nov. 7)
Assuming they lose to Louisville in Week 2, the Coogs could very well be 7-1 at this point and a win here against the East division favorite might push them just enough to win out and appear in the AAC Championship Game.
Best-case scenario: 11-1 (8-0)
If the offensive line gels and a playmaker emerges in the passing game, watch out—Houston will be for real. Herman has enough talent on the roster to work up a similar run that Urban Meyer had in his first season with the Buckeyes in 2012; it might not be where he wants it to be, but it’s good enough now to compete (and beat) anyone on the schedule.
Worst-case scenario: 7-5 (5-3)
There’s a chance this is completely overhyped and that Herman needs a little more than eight months on the job before he can shape Houston into a title contender. Plenty of factors could decide this outcome; it’s not like the Cougars have a ton of depth, and the questions in the trenches on both sides of the ball could turn out to be major hindrances.
Early prediction: 11-1 (8-0)
But I’m buying into the hype. Look at the signs, people. Herman knows how to adjust and build an offense around several different players with contrasting strengths and weaknesses. He has assembled an impressive staff. He already has some of the nation’s top recruits taking notice. And he gets Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy all at home. It’s bold, but 11 wins is not out of the question—not for a proven champion.