The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 69 Houston.
Previewing Houston’s Offense for 2014:
The Cougars are loaded with skill players who could comprise the American Athletic Conference’s most explosive offense. As a freshman, John O’Korn showed UH why the future is promising by averaging 287.4 passing yards in his first seven career starts. But his production diminished late in the season as the Cougars faced better defenses (Cincinnati, Louisville and UCF). The offense became fairly predictable because of O’Korn’s inexperience, and opponents pounced. But the Cougars believe O’Korn, a natural pocket passer, can thrive after a full offseason.
Wide receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer combined for 134 catches, nearly 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago. They are both back. Greenberry might be the conference’s best. Houston moved Greg Ward from quarterback to receiver, and coaches believe he can be effective in the open field. Markeith Ambles, the former high-profile recruit from USC, broke out in the bowl game against Vanderbilt. The Cougars have serious depth at receiver and often run four-wideout sets as a result.
The offensive line must adjust to the loss of starting left tackle Zach Johnson to a torn ACL in spring ball. Junior Alex Cooper will take over Johnson’s spot. The Cougars must adapt without offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, who left for TCU. Houston promoted internally with Travis Bush as Meacham’s replacement.
Houston can get creative with the running game with the tandem of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson at tailback and fullback Tyler McCloskey getting involved, too.
Previewing Houston’s Defense for 2014:
With eight starters returning, Houston’s defensive plan is simple: Build on last year’s opportunistic group that led the country in turnovers with 43, eight more than any other team in the nation. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs presided over one of the country’s top turnarounds (118th in total defense in 2012). The Cougars could stand to improve the 266.8 passing yards allowed per game, but overall this is a playmaking group.
Houston was set to return its top nine defensive linemen before starting end Eric Braswell tore his ACL in spring camp. The staff doesn’t want to change much about its 4-3 scheme but plans to refine what’s already in place.
Linebacker Derrick Mathews has 39 career starts and even more big hits. He’s a leader, as is safety Trevon Stewart. If there’s one concern, at least on paper, it’s cornerback. The Cougars lost two good starters. But UH feels good about its depth there with William Jackson, who has elite speed, Turon Walker and two experienced transfers — Marcus Dillard (junior college) and Tyler White (Utah).
Previewing Houston’s Specialists for 2014:
Head coach Tony Levine has a long-standing special teams background, and Levine’s hands are all over this unit. Houston was first in the American in kickoff returns — Demarcus Ayers averaged nearly 28 yards per kickoff — and second in punting. Kyle Bullard, who was 6-of-6 on field goals a year ago, appears to have the inside track over Ty Cummings for the starting job.
There’s a lot to like about Houston, which has acquitted itself well in the call-up from C-USA to the American. This year’s schedule is manageable, and at least eight wins should be the expectation. Houston is a proud place — two of the country’s most established coaches, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, were roaming UH sidelines not too long ago. This team always seems to thrive off quarterback play, so the question is whether O’Korn has peaked or is just lifting off. The latter appears to be the case. Playmaking is there on both sides of the ball. Houston should be in the conversation as preseason American favorites along with Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF.