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First Look At The Houston Cougars

The Cincinnati Bearcats are one win away from sharing the AAC crown with (at least) the Memphis Tigers. That would have been unthinkable for the Bearcats a month ago. A run for the ages has put the Bearcats in position to claim a share of their first conference title in two years (seems longer). All that stands in their way are the Houston Cougars.

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

We all remember last year's Houston game, a contest that was homeless for the better part of a month before finding a home at the home of the Houston Dynamo. It was a game that the Bearcats controlled on the scoreboard and on the field of play. But it was never a game that felt secure for any stretch of time. The Cougars offense was young an volatile, their defense hellbent on forcing as many turnovers as possible at whatever the cost.

The thought occurred to me then, and to you as well, that the Cougars were going to be trouble down the road. It all came down to one thing, the youthful exuberance of that Houston team. They were messy and chaotic and fun, oh were they fun. It was safe to assume that with a year under their collective belts and a touch more experience the Cougars would be engines of chaos, if not excellence, in the AAC in 2014. John O'Korn, a wealth of skill position talent and a turnover inducing machine of a defense. There was a lot to get excited about with the Cougars in the spring.

Flash forward to December and yeah, engines of chaos is an apt description of this team. They are the only team in the conference to hand the Memphis Tigers a loss. But they also stubbed their toe out of the gate in their beautiful new stadium. But they also inexplicably dropped a game to Tulane and struggled way to much with a Tulsa team that is now head coacheless and dreaming wistfully of the Todd Graham era.

The expected leap from John O'Korn never materialized as the Sophomore regressed to the point where he was benched in favor of Greg Ward Jr. (think Shaq Washington if he actually just played quarterback like he did in high school). This is a pretty accurate summation of what he is capable of .

Ward has given the Cougars offense an added dimension, but this is still a group that is struggling to consistently maintain drives and convert in the red zone. Most observers expected the Cougars to perform at a level equal to that of East Carolina or UC. That hasn't happened as the Cougars are essentially a middle of the table offense in the conference*

* Though there is a huge drop off from the Houston, Memphis, Tulsa offensive cohort to the rest of the conference. Lets face it, there are some truly dreadful offenses in the AAC this season.

Unlike the offense, the defense didn't really regress in 2014. They are still a wildly inconsistent group down to down, a group that is seemingly hell bent on allowing one fewer big play than they create. Houston has seemingly perfected the art of sustaining the unsustainable. On year after leading the nation in takeaways the Cougars sit 5th.

I have no idea how they are doing this on a technical level. It really does to be as simple as defensive coordinator David Gibbs making takeaways a core part of the culture in the Third Ward.

"I told our student-athletes that day, ‘We are going to coach ball security on offense and takeaways on defense harder than any other team in the country, and harder than anything else we coach in the program.'"

Mission very much accomplished.* The Cougars are very good at what they do, but they will not challenge the Bearcats in anything like the way that Temple or UConn did. If anything the Cougars approach will play into the hands of Eddie Gran and his offense that loves nothing more than to make a defense pay over the top. Simply put, the Cougars are a better match up for the Bearcats offense than Temple or UConn were.

*Houston is +9 for the season