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Ranking the Schedule: #4 Houston Cougars

And here's where my rankings get even harder. We are into the top-tier of Cincinnati opponents for the 2015 season and the Tom Herman-led Houston Cougars check-in at #4.

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The Game

Week 10 - Saturday, November 7, 2015 - Time: TBA - TDECU Stadium

Cincinnati Bearcats at Houston Cougars

Who Are They?

Houston is coming off a season where they finished 8-5 and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference. The real story with Houston isn't what they did last season, but rather what they have to look forward to this season as a potential factor in the conference championship. The Cougars are loaded talent-wise and new head coach Tom Herman is coming off a National Championship as the offensive coordinator for Ohio State. Houston is a program on the rise and could make a lot of noise as early as this season.

Offensively, all indications point to junior Greg Ward Jr. starting at quarterback after throwing for 2,010 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight games. He also had a 67.3% completion percentage, which is certainly worth noting. Ward also added 573 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. He is an explosive athlete and could develop into an even more prolific passer under Herman.

Kenneth Farrow returns for the Cougars at running back after gaining 1,037 yards last season and leading the conference with 15 total touchdowns. Ryan Jackson also returns after contributing 610 yards on the ground. Both are seniors. The wide receivers will be very young and inexperienced with only two players catching at least 20 passes in 2014. The offensive line is also in relative shambles with only the two tackles instilling confidence. Even then, left tackle Zach Johnson is coming off ACL surgery.

The defense is shifting to a 3-4 scheme. Houston has forced 73 turnovers in the past two seasons and plays aggressively. The scheme shift may play to that strength even more so. The defensive line is only returning defensive end B.J. Singleton with defensive tackle Nick Thurman and end Cameron Malveaux only bringing one combined start to the table in terms of prior experience.

The linebackers are led by Steven Taylor, who secured four sacks and nine tackles for a loss a year ago. The secondary is a strength for the Cougars, returning all four starters. William Jackson's name is known throughout NFL Draft circles for his ability as a shutdown corner.

Why We Should Worry...

Houston has a lot of talent. They are among the most talented teams in the AAC and their offensive weapons will benefit greatly from Herman's experience at Ohio State with Urban Meyer. Ward isn't a guy who will put up 3,000+ yards passing, but he will make plays when he has no business doing so. That's scary for any defense.

The Houston defense is transitioning to a different defensive scheme under new co-coordinator Todd Orlando (from Utah State), but I wouldn't be surprised if turnovers remain a theme with this team. The defense doesn't need to be the '85 Bears if they can force turnovers.

Finally, this game is on the road. There are scarier road games in the final parts of these rankings, but traveling is hard, especially against a talented opponent like Houston.

And Why We Shouldn't...

Of the remaining four opponents in this writing series, Houston is the biggest unknown. They have a dynamic athlete at quarterback with Ward, but he isn't a polished passer. The running backs are solid, but the offensive line and receivers are inexperienced. The defense is much of the same with the change in scheme and the new faces presenting their own set of questions.

That's a lot to speculate on as we enter the season.

Cincinnati has their own set of questions at defense and offensive line, but I believe the Bearcats are closer to answering those questions than Houston is. Not to mention, Cincinnati is part of a rough stretch in Houston's schedule where the Cougars play at Central Florida, and then home against Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Memphis in consecutive weeks. That's going to be hard on Herman and Houston.

Outlook

There are four or five games this season that really should go down to the wire and this is one of them. Houston's outlook this season is more based on potential, which puts them at #4 on our list. The offense will likely be explosive and the defense could force a litany of turnovers. The fact that Cincinnati has to play Houston in Texas is a little unnerving, especially a week after hosting UCF. The Bearcats have all the pieces to win this one, but this is where it gets dicey. I still like Cincinnati, but if Houston trends upward this season, like expected, this Week 10 clash could have major implications and be a very, very difficult matchup for the Bearcats.

Recap

#12 Alabama A&M - Week 1

#11 Connecticut - Week 8

#10 Tulsa - Week 11

#9 Miami (OH) - Week 3

#8 USF - Week 12

#7 Temple - Week 2

#6 East Carolina - Week 13

#5 UCF - Week 9