Houston has won the last two mythical SWC titles, both under Tom Herman. The Cougars were forced to make some changes as Herman left for Austin, new coach Major Applewhite is putting his stamp on the team. Will that stamp be for the better or worse in 2017? Let's work it out.
Houston will be better...
Ed Oliver is one of the best defensive linemen in football. An elite defensive lineman can have an enormous impact on a defense, or more importantly an offense. More than any other defensive player, a great defensive lineman, specifically an interior one, can force an offense to adapt their run game, their pass protection, almost everything. Ed Oliver is that guy. Darrell Royal used to say of young players "if they'll bite as a pup, they'll bite as a dog." Oliver did his fair share of biting as a true freshman.
He reminds us off Warren Sapp or Russell Maryland, the combination of strength, explosiveness, and raw speed is impossible to replicate for offenses. All that led to 66 tackles, 23 of which were behind the line of scrimmage and five sacks. He added seven quarterback hurries. Then there's the freakish stuff, Oliver had 9 passes defensed - NINE - all from the defensive tackle position. He forced three fumbles. He had a pick which he returned 74 yards.
If Oliver can stay healthy, he can be one of the greatest players in Houston history. He can also help Houston build on last years nine win season.
The rest of the defense ain't bad either. The defensive unit surrounding Oliver isn't pretty good - good enough to maintain the standard set by the previous regime. Garrett Davis is the type of rangy athlete that can make plays all over the field. Davis made 65 stops with seven for loss and three sacks. Khalil Williams joins Davis in the secondary, with sixteen starts. Williams is a physical downhill safety. Williams was third on the team in tackles with 69 and 6.5 stops behind the line.
Defensive end Nick Thurman has the size, at 290 pounds, and ability to make life tough on offensive tackles. Jerard Carter moves outside to defensive end from defensive tackle and is a run stuffer. At linebacker Matthew Adams is a returning All-League caliber player. He led the Cougars with 82 stops in 2016. DeJuan Hines can play inside or outside linebacker and Emeke Egbule has 26 games of experience.
The Cougars defense can carry the squad in 2017, even if the offense goes through some growing pains.
Believe in Major Applewhite. Houston's new coach has been preparing for this his whole life. Major Applewhite has quite the coaching lineage to draw from, he's been part of Mack Brown's staff at Texas, Nick Saban's staff at Alabama, Todd Graham's at Rice and Tom Herman's two years with the Cougars. He's run offenses in the SEC and Big 12, he's no stranger to the big stage.
When Herman left for Austin, Houston was faced with a choice, promote from within or find a suitable replacement from outside the program. Houston is a choice job, smack in the middle of one of the most fertile recruiting ground, with a new stadium, and a track record of spending to compete. Houston chose to stay in house and give Applewhite the gig, it was a smart move. Applewhite has a clear vision for the program, the chops to coach them up, and, while he's not as flashy as Herman, he has the pedigree to keep Houston winning at a high level.
Houston will be worse...
Todd Orlando will be missed. When Houston hired Applewhite the domino effect meant that Todd Orlando was leaving to follow Herman. Texas made him a million dollar assistant and he couldn't pass up the gig. Orlando was as big a part of Houston's 22 wins the past two years as Herman. His attacking defense wreaked havoc on the AAC. Last year's unit was 13th in the FBS in total defense and second in rush defense behind Alabama. Finding a spread stopper like Orlando is difficult, hence the salary bump at Texas.
New DC Mark D'Onofrio last coached at Miami under Al Golden and the results were mixed at best. D'Onofrio's units had top 20 total defense seasons bookended around years where where the Canes ranked 90th or worse. At the U or Houston that's unacceptable. Houston will miss Orlando as much as anyone in 2017.
What to do with Kyle Allen. Don't assume that just because Kyle Allen was a 5-star recruit out of high school that he's the answer to keep Houston's offense running. Allen is replacing one of the best quarterbacks in Cougar history in Greg Ward Jr. Ward was an above average thrower in Houston's scheme but Ward was elite for what he brought to Houston's run game. Ward was essentially a point guard at quarterback, using his decision making skill and athleticism to distribute and create for Houston's offense. Still, in 2016, Houston struggled to run the football even with Ward running the show. Allen doesn't have the running ability of Ward, so Houston will look a lot more conventional in the run game. We don't think they can make that shift easily. Defenses will be able to clog throwing lanes and make Allen's job harder.
It also bears saying that even while Allen started for parts of two seasons in College Station, his completion percentage dropped from 61% to 56% in his second year and his QB to touchdown ratio was barely above 2:1. Allen is talented on paper, but Houston will need to shift its offensive philosophy to account for his skill set. That will be a problem.
Depth is an issue. Due to a number of factors, Houston's numbers are way down. This spring, with injuries and other issues the Cougars were down to 44 scholarship players at one point. The Cougars are paper thin at a number of positions and it will take them a couple of recruiting cycles to get back up to a normal roster size. There are too many positions that simply don't have capable backups for Houston to improve in 2017.