Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Cougars' magical season of 2011 was still disappointing to some as Houston's 13-1 overall finish left it one game short of perfection.
Coach Kevin Sumlin's squad began the 2011 season with a few challenges. The Cougars managed to get past UCLA (38-34), North Texas (48-23), and Louisiana Tech (35-34) in their first three games. Houston closed out its non-conference season with a dominating victory over Georgia State (56-0) which helped it build momentum for its Conference USA opener with Texas-El Paso (49-42). The Cougars showed no mercy the rest of the way as they blew out East Carolina (56-3), Marshall (63-28), Rice (73-34), UAB (56-13), Tulane (73-17), SMU (37-7), and Tulsa (48-16).
The Cougars were projected to make their first trip to a BCS bowl game prior to the C-USA Championship with Southern Miss. However, an opponent finally figured out how to slow down Houston's offense and the Golden Eagles claimed the league crown with a 49-28 win. The C-USA Championship was the last at Houston for Sumlin, who accepted the head coaching position at Texas A&M.
Despite the loss to Southern Miss, Houston still managed to give its seniors a good send off with a 30-14 victory over Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl. Interim head coach Tony Levine had the label stripped from his title less than a month after leading the Cougars past the Nittany Lions and heads into his first season as the top man.
OFFENSE: Houston led the entire NCAA in passing offense (450.1 ypg), total offense (599.1 ypg), and scoring offense (49.29 ppg) in 2011 largely because of its record setting quarterback Case Keenum. The Cougars not only lost their star QB, they also have to replace their top three wideouts, all while Mike Nesbitt transitions into his new role as offensive coordinator. Keenum's replacement will be David Piland, again. Piland stepped in as a true freshman in 2010 after Keenum's season-ending knee injury. Piland led the C-USA (league games) in passing yards and was second in total offense that season and redshirted in 2011 to protect his eligibility.
Offensive lineman Jacolby Ashworth certainly has confidence in Piland's abilities.
"When Kevin Kolb went to the NFL, people asked who would be the next Kolb when Case was a freshman. Then Case took over and now people are asking the same question. It's time for David (Piland) to begin his era and be himself."
Replacing Keenum might not be as hard as finding players to replace Houston's departed quartet of wide receivers that was responsible for 301-of-479 receptions and 39-of-54 touchdown grabs last year. The leading receiver from last season among returners is fifth-year senior Ronnie Williams (138 yards, 16 catches, one TD). Daniel Spencer and Dewayne Peace will have their roles expanded this season as well.
Junior tailback Charles Sims accumulated nearly 1,400 total yards of offense last season and ranked 4th in the nation with 7.5 yards per rush. Sims is an excellent feature back, but there is little experience behind him on the depth chart. Kenneth Farrow should see time backing up Sims as a redshirt freshman. Both the running game and aerial attack will benefit from the strong returning platoon on the offensive line. Four players that started all 14 games last season during Houston's record setting season are back.
DEFENSE: Jamie Bryant was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator over the offseason. Bryant and the defense made a switch to a 4-3 alignment after appearing to be helpless against the run on several occasions in 2011. Senior tackle Dominic Miller and sophomore end Eric Braswell (6-4, 250) established themselves as key players last season. The switch to the 4-3 should help both returning starters excel in 2012.
Phillip Steward and Derrick Matthews both started last season as linebackers, but they were not as celebrated as the departed duo of Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw. Steward led all linebackers in the NCAA with six interceptions last season and Matthews had two separate 12-tackle performances.
The secondary ranked third nationally in interceptions as they were constantly challenged by opponents that were desperate to narrow the margin on the scoreboard. D.J. Hayden and Zach McMillan both return to man the starting cornerback positions, while junior Kent Brooks lines up at strong safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Cougars' kicking game might be the most dependable in the entire nation with Matt Hogans and Richie Leone reprising their roles. Hogans set the NCAA record for most consecutive PATs last season (78), while Leone averaged 41.1 yards per punt. Damian Payne has the most potential out of the group of talented skill position players hoping to take over the kick and punt return duties.
OUTLOOK: The Cougars have a realistic shot of returning to the C-USA Championship if Piland can handle the pressure of being the top QB on the depth chart. The defense should improve, but not enough to carry the load.
"As far as this year, we've got something to prove. We come off a 13-1 season, and quite frankly that doesn't mean anything right now for the 2012 season. We've got a lot of new faces out there. We're going to be extremely young, especially offensively." said Levine.
Houston's non-conference schedule is not filled with elite competition. The Cougars should win at least three of four as they take on Texas State, Louisiana Tech, UCLA, and North Texas outside of league play.
They begin their C-USA season on September 29 versus Rice at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The Cougars will not get a rematch with Southern Miss unless it occurs in the postseason. Houston's two games prior to its regular-season finale will be difficult as they face Tulsa at home and Marshall on the road in what could shape up to be deciding games.
Nesbitt is just one of a handful of new coaches to the league. Another perfect regular season is unlikely, but so is a losing season for a talent-filled Houston squad.