Houston QB David Piland returns to lead the Cougars' offense. (Thomas Campbell, US-Presswire.)
Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.
Today at No. 53: Houston
Coach: Tony Levine (6-7, 2nd season; 6-7 overall)
2012 record: 5-7 (4-4 Conference USA; tied for third in C-USA West)
Look back: A slow start to the season and a defense that could never get its act together doomed the Cougars in 2012. They failed to reach a bowl game during their final season in Conference USA. Houston opened the season with three consecutive losses, including defeats at home to Texas State and Louisiana Tech. Although the Cougars responded with three consecutive wins over Rice, North Texas and UAB, their defensive issues caught up to them. Houston gave up at least 35 points during its next five games, four of which were losses.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Offensive starters lost: 2
Defensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters lost: 7
Key losses: RB Charles Sims, CB D.J. Hayden, LB Phillip Steward, OL Jacolby Ashworth, K Matt Hogan
Top returnees: QB David Piland, WR Dewayne Peace, DB Zach McMillian, LB Derrick Mathews, DL Joey Mbu, DB Trevon Stewart, OL Bryce Redman
Strengths: The Cougars should once again be a big-play offense capable of putting up a lot of points with QB David Piland back under center and all but two starters returning from an offense that averaged 32.4 points and 479.6 yards per game. Piland threw for 2,944 yards last season with 16 touchdowns, but he'll look to cut down on the turnovers (12 INTs) this season. Experience on the offensive line should help a running game that will not have the game-breaker in RB Charles Sims that it did last season.
Weaknesses: The loss of Sims, who transferred to West Virginia, is a monstrous hit to the offense. Sims compiled 851 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and likely would have been an all-conference player in 2013. The defense will have to improve under a new coordinator despite losing three of its four starting linemen and two of three starting linebackers from 2012. LB Derrick Mathews will be counted on to lead a linebacker unit that adds LSU transfer Trevon Randle. The loss of CB D.J. Hayden, a first-round NFL Draft pick, stings, but Houston showed potential at the position last season after Hayden was sidelined due to injury.
Outlook: Houston is improving, but it will need to complete the reconstruction of its defense if it wants to reach a bowl game in its first season in the American Athletic Conference. If the Cougars can build on their 36 points and 483 yards allowed per game numbers from 2012, they could challenge for a spot in the top half of the league standings. Nonconference games against Southern and UTSA are must-wins early, and if the offense can maintain its 2012 production despite the loss of Sims, Houston may surprise some. They'll have to be ready in time for a brutal November that includes games at UCF and Louisville as well as Cincinnati and SMU.
Aug. 30 Southern
Sept. 7 at Temple
Sept. 21 Rice
Sept. 28 at UTSA
Oct. 12 Memphis
Oct. 19 BYU
Oct. 26at Rutgers
Oct. 31 USF
Nov. 9at UCF
Nov. 16at Louisville
Nov. 23 Cincinnati
Nov. 29 SMU