First year coach, Tom Herman, led the Houston Cougars to a 13-1 season in 2015 and our college football handicapper doesn't think it's time to get off of the hype train just yet.
2015 in Review:
The Houston Cougars of the American Athletic Conference return in 2016 after a smashing success of a 2015 season, where they finished 13-1 and beat a 9th ranked Florida State team on New Year's Eve in the Peach Bowl. It was Tom Herman's first year at the helm, and all he did was win the AAC title, go 3-0 against power conferences, and have the team finished ranked 8th in the national polls.
Their only loss on the season was to the University of Connecticut after their starting quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., was knocked out of the game early. Fortunately for Houston, Ward will be back as a senior this year, with the coaching staff looking for him to bring leadership to the team. Last year he brought raw statistics, as Ward put up 2,590 passing yards, 16/5 TD/INT, and a 68.1 completion percentage in the passing game and 1,041 yards on the ground with 178 carries and 5.8 yards per touch.
Houston parlayed it's 2015 success with the 44th ranked recruiting class for 2016, which is the highest ranked class outside of the power conferences. Still, they have almost all of their running back touches to replace, with 3 of their solid starters gone. Look for Texas transfer and sophomore Duke Catalon, a previous four-star recruit, to get some significant looks this season. But at the end of the day, Ward will likely be the leading rusher for the team this year.
The receiving corps loses a leader, Demarcus Ayers, and his 1,222 yards this year, but also return six juniors and two seniors for 2016. They even signed a four-star recruit in Courtney Lark that could be in the mix. The receivers and passing game should be solid for Houston this year and likely the strongest unit on the field.
The offensive line is young but returns five players that saw decent playing time last year. Losing 2nd All-AAC left tackle, Alex Cooper, will hurt and be a significant hole to fill by junior, Marcus Oliver.
The Houston defense ranked 8th in college football in yards allowed per game, as opponents chose to try to pick apart their 116th ranked passing defense. Their defense against the run should be even better this year, with four of five linemen returning and five of their top six linebackers. This should force opponents to try to beat the Cougars through the air once again. This leads to another question mark on this squad – the secondary. The secondary loses 4 starters, but Houston is still left with four players that played in 13 or more games in 2015. Hopefully the pressure the excellent defensive line can put up will force offenses into unforced errors.
Unfortunately for Houston, their season likely pivots in the first week as they face a tough opponent in Oklahoma. The Cougars are likely to be a double-digit underdog in this game, and should they pull off the upset, they might not have another game in which they are challenged until week 11 against Louisville. An injury to Ward would also be disastrous for this team.
The most interesting line for college football odds I see available for Houston is the season win total which currently sits at 9, although with some heavy juice at -150 at Bovada. I like this line with Houston as favorite college football pick, because of their dominant defensive line and an explosive passing game that should be able to keep up should their secondary get torched. They may lose to Oklahoma, but I see them winning 2 out of 3 at Cincinnati, at Navy, and home versus Louisville. Tom Herman should be even better in his second year, and I see no reason to fade the Cougars given the squad returning for 2016.