It's hard to call a nine win season a disappointment but such were the heights that Houston had aspired to. The Cougars set their sights on crashing the playoff party and for a time, it seemed they might be able to do just that. Then injuries, attrition, and lack of interest cost the Cougars four wins.
Let's look back at 2016's Houston Cougars.
We harp on this because it's critical, what's the identity of a program? In other words, beyond the "core values" and marketing, what does a program do well? What do they do that makes them special, potent, or hard to deal with? If a program isn't intentional about what it wants to do, it's just hoping things go right and hope ain't a strategy.
Tom Herman's Houston Cougars won 13 games in 2015 by playing good defense, causing turnovers and running the football. Tom Herman's 2016 team played great defense, caused turnovers, and couldn't run the ball to save their lives. That's the difference between close wins and close losses.
Herman's gone, not a surprise really, he was always going, but it still stings. In his place comes Major Applewhite, or "The Major" if your Brent Musburger, but we'll just call him Applewhite. He has the pedigree to be a very good coach having learned under Saban, Mack Brown, Bailiff, and Herman. He was always a heady player, so he's got that going for him. What he doesn't have going for him, at least not according to perception, is Herman's "swag." We hate that word, but whatever, it's here to stay. Herman turned Houston's commuter school culture into a selling point. He embraced 3rd Ward, Paul Wall and all. Applewhite doesn't seem to have that gear. That may be ok, Briles and Sumlin didn't get Paul Wall grills either.
Offensively, the loss of Herman and the majority of the coaching staff hurts, but this is Applewhite's specialty. While there won't be sweeping changes, we expect the Houston offense will be a little more pass based and more than that, with Kyle Allen in the fold, a lot less quarterback run based.
Defensively the loss of Todd Orlando stings as well. He'd crafted Houston into an elite run stopping unit, ranked 2nd in the FBS at yards per rush and rush yards allowed per game. However Orlando did it, Houston also caused a ton of turnovers. His replacement, Mark D'Onofrio hasn't exactly inspired an outpouring of praise, but he runs the same 3-4 base scheme that Orlando did.
Flip a coin between OU and Louisville, but we'll take the Oklahoma win in week one. The Sooners were a top 10 team heading into NRG to play the Cougars. Houston showed the flashes that made them a 13 game winner in 2015 in route to a convincing win over the eventual Big 12 Champs.
Of the four Houston losses, SMU stands out because of the one sidedness of the game. SMU dominated a better Houston team from start to finish. That game low lighted a three game stretch that started with a loss at Navy then a game that the Cougars almost gave away to Tulsa at home and finally the loss to the Ponies.
Answers we have
It goes without saying, but Ed Oliver was one of the most disruptive defensive players in college football last season. He's a teenager. A year in the strength program and a year to grow, he'll be even better.
Linell Bonner caught 93 passes in 2016, a huge year for a player who caught a just 25 passes a year ago. Big and physical, Bonner is back for his senior season.
The Cougars will return all five starters from their offensive line including four who've made double digit starts. A weakness heading into 2016 is a strength heading into 2017.
Answers we need
Greg Ward Jr. is gone, after a remarkably productive career. In his stead comes transfer Kyle Allen, a former Aggie and former 5-star recruit. But Ward Jr. and Allen are markedly different players. How does Houston's offense adapt to a pocket passer, rather than a dual threat quarterback.
The Cougars lose some very disruptive defensive studs from the 2016 roster including Tyus Bowser, Steven Taylor, Brandon Wilson and recently announced early draft enrollee Howard Wilson. Does Houston the defensive depth to overcome those losses, in particular Bowser and Taylor up front.
Houston's rushing attack took a major tumble last season, do the Cougars have the running back talent to get back to their 2015 levels?
Lastly, regarding Applewhite himself, following Herman is a tough act, does Applewhite have it in him to maintain, let alone build on the Cougars recent success? Houston still has great facilities and sits in one of the most prime recruiting areas in the nation. It's a lot to maintain. Is Applewhite up for it?
The old AAC hasn't released its conference slate yet, but it should be coming soon. In the mean time, let's look at their non-conference schedule. The Cougars open with trips to UTSA and Arizona. The Owls return home for Rice and then a big matchup with Texas Tech.
9/2 @ UTSA
9/9 @ Arizona
9/23 Texas Tech
Houston is currently ranked 2nd in the AAC according to Scout.com and 66th overall. Applewhite and Co. are once again recruiting the Houston area well, nine of their thirteen current commitments come from the 713 or 281. The Cougars have attracted two top 55 ranked linebackers in Derek Parrish from Pearland and Terrel Bernard from La Porte. Big Joe Anderson from the JC ranks will help the interior of the defensive line immediately.
|Scout Rank||Name||Pos||Pos Rank||Ht||Wt||40 Time||School|
|NR||Noah Jones||DE||75||6'3.5"||260||5.21||Lancaster, TX|
|69 (JC)||Joe Anderson||DT||6'5"||285||Copiah-Lincoln JC|
|NR||Donovan Stiner||S||59||6'1"||185||Bellaire, TX|
|NR||Chidi Ogbonnaya||DE||6'5"||245||Houston, TX|
|NR||Jeremy Singleton||WR||108||5'11"||162||New Orleans, LA|
|NR||Samuel Cosmi||OT||6'5"||260||Humble, TX|
|NR||Dennis Bardwell||OG||50||6'5.5"||276||5.26||Huffman, TX|
|NR||Elijah Gooden||RB||6'0"||190||Boling, TX|
|NR||Terrel Bernard||OLB||54||6'1"||200||La Porte, TX|
|NR||Bryson Smith||ATH||39||6'0"||164||4.52||Tyler, TX|
|NR||Parker Eichenberger||TE||6'4"||230||Katy, TX|
|NR||Alexander Duke||DE||105||6'3"||230||Bellaire, TX|
|NR||Derek Parish||ILB||37||6'1"||235||Pearland, TX|