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Opponent Preview: Houston Cougars

Exit Tom Herman (and more). Enter Major Applewhite.

NCAA Football: Texas Kickoff-Oklahoma vs Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Herman sure did a good job at Houston in, wait, he only coached there for two years? Wow. That is some efficient work. Under Herman’s tutelage, the Cougars went 22-4 and made back-to-back bowl games, perhaps showing that Tony Levine had the team on the right track all along.

Last year at this time we were discussing how the Cougars were going to crash the College Football Playoff party. Then, in their season opener, the Cougars took down then No. 3 Oklahoma and it looked like those dreams were about to come true for Houston and the American Athletic Conference. Unfortunately, stumbles against Navy and SMU ruined the fun and USF, Navy and Temple ended up being the conference’s best teams, at least in terms of success in league play.

Now Herman is gone and that’s not all. A lot of the talent from 2016 is either in the NFL or graduated, leaving new head coach Major Applewhite without a full toolbox, but not one completely devoid of usefulness.

What They Do Well

There were a number of good defensive teams in the AAC last season and Houston was certainly one of them. Not only did the Cougars rank second in the league in total defense and scoring defense, they were also one of the most fearsome when it came to creating pressure. Led by Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, they racked up 39 sacks, which was just one fewer than Temple and good enough for a top 20 finish nationally. Unfortunately for Houston, Bowser is now playing for the Baltimore Ravens and although he surprisingly was not drafted, Taylor is gone as well.

With a 9-3 record and some impressive wins, Houston didn’t just defend well. The Cougars also did some good things on offense, especially in the passing game, ranking third in the AAC in passing offense (296.3 YPG). Linell Bonner was a star receiver for the cause, turning 98 receptions into 1,118 yards, but only three touchdowns. Bonner will now have to recreate the chemistry he had with Greg Ward Jr., who was a star for the Cougars but is now trying to cut it as a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles.

What They Don’t Do Well

There are not many things to knock against Houston. Obviously, it didn’t play SMU and Navy as well as it would have liked, but aside from that, the season was a very successful one. One area of slight weakness came in creating turnovers, as the Cougars forced only 18, tied for ninth in the AAC. Because of that, they ended up with a negative turnover margin (-7) on the campaign which was a major step back from the +21 margin they had in 2015.

Players to Watch

Kyle Allen and Kyle Postma, QB

The Kyles are the heirs apparent to Ward Jr. Allen is getting a great deal of hype after sitting out 2016 following his transfer from Texas A&M. He’s got the pedigree to be a standout passer, as he was named the top quarterback in his recruiting class by a host of recruiting services.

Postma will likely be the backup, but he could get some time should Allen struggle, but that seems unlikely.

Duke Catalon, RB

The second-best rusher on the team in 2016, Catalon will be tasked with helping improve a running game that will be without the dual threat that Ward Jr. provided.

Linell Bonner, WR

We already mentioned Bonner, but the 6’0’ wideout should be Allen’s favorite target.

Will Noble, OL

As sturdy as they come, Noble is an excellent center who played in 12 games last season and has already garnered a number of preseason honors. He’d be a nice trade target for the Bearcats if such things were allowed.

Ed Oliver, DT

If there is one single player who can at least soothe the sting of losing Taylor and Bowser, its Oliver. The 2016 All-AAC first teamer led the team with 22.0 tackles for loss and five sacks last season and he also tallied six passes defended and two forced fumbles.

Garrett Davis, S

The junior safety had 65 tackles, including 7.0 for loss, last season and will anchor a secondary that lost skilled playmaker Howard Wilson, who had five interceptions a year ago.

Do They Play Cincinnati?

Unfortunately they do not. That means the Bearcats will not get a chance to avenge last year’s 40-16 loss until 2018, unless they both make it to the AAC title game.

Prediction Time!

Getting a guy like Allen at quarterback is almost unfair. The Cougars already got to run Ward Jr. out there for a few years and now they get a former elite prospect. With Bonner and Catalon making plays and Noble anchoring the line up front, the Cougars should be just fine offensively and Oliver will ensure this team still clamps down on defense. Its not going to be an easy go for Applewhite in year one, but it should be a successful one. Mark Houston down for eight wins and a bowl appearance.