The Cougars were one of the biggest surprises in the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Houston began the season 5-0, and was 7-1 and tied for first in the AAC with four games to play.
But when the schedule turned tough in November, Houston faded out of the race. Consecutive losses to Central Florida, Louisville and Cincinnati exposed the Cougar weaknesses, and the team wound up in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, losing 41-24 to Vanderbilt.
The task for Tony Levine is to take the Cougars to the next level in 2014. To make that happen, he'll need two things -- continued improvement from quarterback John O'Korn, and a better effort out of his defense. He'll also count on a better stadium situation to make it an easier path to victory.
After a year of playing all its home games off-campus, Houston opens the 40,000-seat TDECU Stadium when it kicks off August 29 against UTSA.
"We felt like in theory while we've got a great fan base, great students, but not playing on campus, it almost felt like you're playing mostly away games," Levine said. "Our fans showed up. I don't want to have anybody misinterpret what I'm saying. But we were always in a new locker room, taking a bus 10 or 15 minutes. It will be fun to be back on campus."
More will be expected of the Cougars this season. Houston was picked third in the AAC preseason media poll, behind Central Florida and Cincinnati. O'Korn was one of the top quarterbacks in the country as a freshman a year ago, and that wasn't even the biggest surprise with the program. The defense, which was one of the worst in the country in 2012, became an opportunistic unit that took advantage of opponents' mistakes and avoiding making too many of its own.
"When we made the change at defensive coordinator a year ago, brought in David Gibbs, the things we wanted to do was reduce our defensive package, the amount of what we did," Levine said. "We felt like if we could make sure our student-athletes understood what to do, how to line up, what to do when the ball was snapped defensively, have that confidence in their knowledge of what we're doing on that side of the ball, then we could focus much, much more on the things we feel could help you win in terms of tackling and taking the football away. That's what we were able to do. I think our defense became very, very confident over the course of last season."
Now, the task is to get more consistency. After allowing 41 points to Vanderbilt in its postseason loss, the defense enters this season knowing it still has work to do. The offense should be able to continue to put up points. If the defense can keep the opponents from doing the same, the Cougars should again enter November with a chance at the conference title.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Four of the first Houston games are at home, so if the Cougars can get used to their new digs quickly, they should be able to get off to a good start. The one road game in that stretch is a tough one, though -- a Sept. 11 trip to Provo, Utah to take on BYU. And after starting off at home against UTSA, Grambling State and UNLV, the schedule gets tougher after the month ends, with Houston opening league play against Central Florida at home on Oct. 2.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The offense usually is taken for granted in Houston, but the defense was the key to the team's success last season. The question for Houston is whether that's sustainable. The Cougars forced 43 turnovers, and the turnover margin was nearly 2 per game. It seems hard to believe that ratio will be sustainable, so much of the team's success may depend on how well the defense performs when it doesn't succeed in taking the ball away.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Houston was a young team a year ago, but the one area where graduation losses may prove critical is the secondary. The Cougars have to replace both starting cornerbacks, and if that doesn't get settled quickly and the defense can't reach a comfort level, it will be particularly hard to match the success the defense enjoyed a year ago at taking the ball away.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's got a tremendously high ceiling, if you will. I think it's going to be fun, as I said earlier, to watch him develop as a sophomore, go through our strength and condition programming, a second spring practice in 2015, come back as a junior. The sky's the limit for what he can be, not only on the field, but off the field as well." -- Coach Tony Levine, on his sophomore quarterback John O'Korn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Tony Levine, third year at Houston, 14-12 record at Houston and as a head coach.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
WR Deontay Greenberry (No 11 wide receiver, 66th overall) -- Though he's just a junior, Greenberry caught 82 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago, and those numbers should only go up in his second year catching passes from John O'Korn. He'll need to get stronger, and not allow himself to be pushed out of his passing routes by physical defenders, but he's got the ability to make cornerbacks and safeties miss that can turn short passes into big gains.
LB Derrick Matthews (No. 35 linebacker, 729th overall) -- Matthews has had more than 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons and had seven sacks a year ago. He's not going to wow anyone with his physical attributes at the NFL combine, but he should be able to impress them with his ability to make plays.
QB John O'Korn -- O'Korn put up big numbers as a freshman, but he still has a long way to go to get a lot of attention with the NFL scouts. His sophomore season will be a pivotal one, as if he shows greater strength and more comfort with the offense, he can get on the radar screens of NFL general managers with two more years ahead of him to put up numbers.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB John O'Korn -- O'Korn wasn't expected to start last season, but was thrust into the role in September and threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns. With his ability to make plays within the offense, he's poised to become the next in a long line of prolific Houston passers. His continued development will determine how far this team will go in 2014 and beyond.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Steven Taylor -- It's easy to overlook Taylor, since he plays alongside Derrick Matthews and Efrem Oliphant at linebacker. But the sophomore had 85 tackles a year ago, and showed that the future of the position is solid when the seniors leave, and he should only get better as he gets more experience in the system.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Gavin Stansbury -- Stansbury transferred to Houston from Texas A&M at the end of July, and was expected to be made eligible immediately. The senior comes in at a good time -- he'll likely slot into the position that became vacant when Eric Braswell tore his ACL.
--OL Damien Parris moved from right tackle to left tackle in August, and is expected to start the season there. Parris transferred to Houston from Contra Costa Community College in 2012, and sat out last season with a knee injury.
--OT Kyle Marrs transferred to Houston from Oklahoma prior to the season. His appeal to play immediately was denied, so he'll sit out the 2014 season and have three years of eligibility remaining.
--DT Davious Ballard didn't enroll this fall because he failed to qualify academically. He'll attend junior college instead.
--LT Zach Johnson was expected to start again on the offensive line, but tore his ACL at the end of spring practice. He'll likely miss the entire 2014 season.
--C Connor Freeman injured his knee in practice in August. The true freshman had a chance to insert himself onto the depth chart as a backup, but now will likely redshirt.
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