Houston began the 2012 season with three straight losses, including a troubling 30-13 rout at the hands of Texas State. Houston kept itself afloat though by rattling off three straight victories. All of those wins came in blowout fashion, as the Cougars trampled Rice (35-14), North Texas (44-21) and UAB (39-17). Houston would lose another three straight games later in the season and by going 2-4 in its final six games, missed out on a chance to play in the postseason.
OFFENSE: Offense has not been an issue for Houston over the last few seasons and even though last year wasn't a roaring success in the standings, the Cougars still put up impressive numbers in that area. Houston ranked 15th nationally in total offense (479.6 ypg), while also scoring a healthy 32.4 points per game.
"It's a little bit of our brand, it's our style, we feel like we can recruit those type of skill guys to come here, be explosive and get them the ball in space," head coach Tony Levine said. "That's been our brand and something we have been tremendously successful with."
Doug Meacham will be taking over at offensive coordinator but will likely attempt to make a few minor adjustments to an otherwise strong attack.
Starting quarterback David Piland threw for 2,929 yards and 16 touchdowns last season in guiding the nation's 11th most prolific passing attack (328.4 ypg). What Piland needs to work on is his accuracy. Though his 57.1 completion percentage was solid, for an offense that is so up-tempo, getting into the 60 percent range could really elevate the Cougars.
Most of Piland's favorite targets will be back. That includes Dewayne Peace, who led the squad in receptions (54) and yards (603) last season as well as Deontay Greenberry (47 receptions, 569 yards) and Daniel Spencer (41 receptions, 5679 yards). The trio of receivers were consistent in sharing the load but if one could become more of a deep threat it could help open up for Meacham's scheme.
The biggest loss for the Houston offense was one it was not anticipating. Charles Sims rushed for 851 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games last season but he elected to transfer to West Virginia in late June for his senior season. That leaves a sizable hole at the running back spot. Sophomore Kenneth Farrow (86 attempts, 466 yards) will step in to the starting role. Ryan Jackson made one start last season and rushed for 252 yards in the campaign overall and will get chances this season as well.
Though the running game lost its top back, Houston will benefit from having four starters return on the offensive line, including senior guard Ty Cloud.
DEFENSE: Although the offense was potent last season, the defense was bad. Houston was at the very bottom of Conference USA in total defense (483 ypg), ranking among the 10 worst in the country. Though part of the problem is the quick strike offense giving opponents more opportunities, there is no denying this is an area that needs to improve quickly.
The issues last season were enough for the Cougars to bring in David Gibbs as defensive coordinator. Gibbs was last a defensive coordinator at Auburn in 2005 and since then has spent time in the NFL and UFL as a defensive backs coach.
There are only four starters left over from last season on the defensive unit. Chief among them is linebacker Derrick Mathews, who moves from an outside spot to the middle. Mathews was one of four players to collect at least 100 tackles for Houston (126), while also making 17.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. Mathews will really need to take on a leadership role as the other projected starters at linebacker are sophomore Trevon Randle and freshman Steven Taylor.
The secondary has the most returning experience with cornerback Zach McMillian and safety Trevon Stewart both starters a year ago. Stewart had 126 stops last season, while McMillian hauled in five interceptions and had 11 passes defended. Turon Walker is a junior college transfer that could further enhance the secondary as could touted prospect Kent London.
"The whole team not just the defense, we all have something to prove," Stewart said. "5-7 is not what we were looking for but you know we have been working hard since the spring.It's going to be a good ride this fall."
Joey Mbu will anchor a largely raw defensive line from the defensive tackle spot. Eric Braswell and Eric Eiland will man the outside, while sophomore Tomme Walker joins Mbu inside.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ryan Jackson returned a team-high 14 kickoffs last season and had a healthy 21.7 yards per return average. He should continue to handle those duties. Dewayne Peace was the primary punt returner, but speedster Larry McDuffey may take over there so Peace can focus more on getting open in the passing game.
Richie Leone will take on the additional responsibility of place kicker this season. As a punter Leone had a 45.5 yards-per-punt average while booting 25 touchbacks as the primary kickoff specialist. Ty Cummings is a true freshman that could be tried at place kicker should Leone struggle.
OUTLOOK: Losing Sims is obviously a huge loss for a team that was already a middle of the road unit last year. Now that the Cougars are moving to the tougher American Athletic Conference, they may see an even bigger drop off.
In terms of the schedule, Houston starts with FCS foe Southern before playing three straight games on the road highlighted by its first matchup with an AAC opponent (Temple). Houston then plays five of its final eight games at home but two of the road games come against the upper echelon of the conference with tests at Rutgers and at Louisville. Houston will also play SMU, a team it lost to in a 72-42 rout last season, to wrap up the campaign.
Though he will be adjusting to a new coordinator the offensive scheme shouldn't change too much for Piland. He will be needed to turn experience into improvement especially with the running game now in flux. It would also help if one of the receivers, maybe Peace, has a breakout year. However, the offense was already solid. What will determine how well the Cougars' first season in their new conference goes is how far the defense comes.