In the lead-up to the upcoming college football season, Sports Unbiassed is taking a look at the top 20 teams with a chance to win the Access Bowl bid in 2015. You can find the full list of the Top 20, links to other team previews, and read more about the methodology behind the rankings here.
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 in MAC)
Head Coach: Tom Herman (.000)
Returning Starters: 14/24 (6 OFF/7 DEF/1 SP)
5-Year Recruiting Ranking Composite: 71st
FIVE POSSIBLE STATEMENT GAMES
- Sept. 12 @ Louisville
- Oct. 24 @ UCF
- Oct. 31 v. Vanderbilt
- Nov. 7 v. Cincinnati
- Nov. 14 v. Memphis
WHAT YOU REMEMBER/SHOULD REMEMBER ABOUT THE COUGARS
Two indelible memories stick out for me from the past decade of Houston football. One is the epic collapse of the Kevin Sumlin-coached squad that dropped the C-USA Championship Game to Southern Miss. The other happened four years earlier, and while ancillary to the actual action on the field is indicative of another facet of the random wackiness that makes college football so endearing:
That Autzen Stadium mascot donnybrook kicked off a wild 2007 season that resulted in then-head coach Art Briles landing the Baylor job prior to the Cougars’ Texas Bowl victory over TCU. The sustained 21st century excellence established by these two coaches seemingly tapered off during Tony Levine’s time in Houston, but even then an inaugural 5-7 campaign after coaching the bowl game following Briles’ departure was followed by twin 8-5 campaigns (the latter of which ended for Levine after the seventh win when he was dismissed on December 8. Perhaps a breakout campaign was in the cards had Levine had a fourth season with the Cougars, given that his trajectory similar to Sumlin’s first three seasons in terms of results on the field. Instead engineering a return to success now falls to Tom Herman, most recently seen on a football field in January at the offensive coordinator of Ohio State’s national championship team.
THE KEY REASON FOR HOPE FOR THE COUGARS IN 2015
The cupboards aren’t completely bare for Herman as he comes in to try his hand at replicating the career path of Briles and Sumlin. Greg Ward Jr. provides Herman with a quarterback that should effectively fit into the new coach’s offensive scheme, three of the five offensive line starters are back from 2014, and 1000-yard rusher Kenneth Farrow offers balance in the backfield. There are plenty of ingredients for Herman to work with as he transitions from coordinator to figurehead of a program. Also in the mix is Kyle Bullard, a 2014 Lou Groza Award semifinalist who made the first 18 field goals of his college career to set the school record for consecutive field goals at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014.
The team also returns seven starters to a defense that ranked among the top 25 nationally in turnover margin (and returns all four defensive backs to a defensive unit that ranked first nationally in generating turnovers in 2013 and was tied for 11th last year). They were also ranked in the top 20 each of the past two years in keeping opponents off the scoreboard. Even with defensive coordinator David Gibbs moving on to Texas Tech, the hire of former Utah State defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should keep the Cougars defense a fearsome unit that should keep Houston competitive against every opponent on its schedule.
WHAT COULD COST THE COUGARS THE ACCESS BOWL SLOT
The only essentially guaranteed loss on this team’s schedule is the Louisville game on September 12, and a lone loss to the Cardinals (especially if it ended close) would not immediately doom Houston’s chance at the Access Bowl. But the AAC is a logjam this season, and the team will have to fight its way through one of the strongest two mid-major conferences with an experienced roster… that is used to a different playbook. With the Bearcats, Tigers, Midshipmen, and Knights all entering the year with established coaching staffs, the biggest roadblock will be the adjustment to Tom Herman’s new group of coordinators and coaches.
It will require flexibility on the part of everybody involved in order to realize the ultimate goal, and while a push for the AAC crown is still possible it might be too much to expect in Herman’s first season at the helm. While the Cougars get to play Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy at home and avoid East Carolina in the regular season, they have to travel to UCF. None of those four games are guaranteed victories. Houston will be underdogs in most of those games, even at home — unless they do upset Louisville, at which point all bets are off.
OFFERING A POTENTIAL OUTCOME FOR 2015
The opening game against FCS Tennessee Tech should give Houston the opportunity to enter its road trip to Louisville with confidence. With the Cardinals harboring hopes of unseating Florida State and Clemson in the ACC, however, it is not impossible but highly improbable that the Cougars will pull off the upset in the Pizza Box. Texas State shouldn’t give Houston an issue on its return home, and 2-1 is a realistic way to start the conference schedule. Trips to Tulsa and Tulane are sandwiched around a home game around former Southwest Conference rival SMU; none should cause reason for worry, putting the Cougars at 5-1 entering the second half of the season.
That brings us to the heart of Houston’s schedule. The road trip to UCF feels like a toss-up that will showcase the depth of the AAC, but it will also probably end with UH losing its second game of the season. October ends with home showdown against an SEC squad… that the SEC team in question is Vanderbilt makes it somewhat less significant. Unlike the Louisville game, Houston might very well be expected to win this contest, and the pressure might result in a loss that looks less attractive to the CFP selection committee.
But let’s hold off for a moment on determining whether the Commodores will a win of statement-like substance for the Cougars. After that SEC battle Houston still has two more weekends at home against Cincinnati and Memphis. At least one loss is likely to result from this trio of games, more likely two, and Vanderbilt is honestly the likeliest victim of the three. So let’s assume that the Cougars get their Power Five statement win, but fall out of the running for the AAC crown. The last two games of the season will be formalities, but the worst that lies in the future with UConn and Navy ending the season is 7-5. More likely is 8-4, a bowl mismatch against another Power Five school, and the same finish that got Tony Levine fired last year.
PREDICTED RECORD: 8-5 (5-3 in AAC)