With college football season creeping closer and closer, we here at SB Nation Houston are taking some time to reach out to some fellow fan writers to get a better grasp of what the Cougars' non-conference schedule has in store this year.
With no disrespect intended towards any of the schools on UH's non-conference slate this year, there's little denying that this year's opponents don't hold the quality of the teams Houston has faced in years past. This is only the second time in the past nine years that the Coogs have faced only a single team from an AQ conference. (And it's a UCLA squad coming off a 4-8 season.) The first four teams on the Houston schedule went a combined 11-25 against Division 1-A competition in 2010.
Do all four teams look better on paper this year than they did last year? Yes. Are there any games that Houston doesn't have to take seriously? Well, probably Georgia State, but that's it.
Now you can argue back and forth about the merits of playing a tough non-conference schedule versus trying to load up on wins against creampuffs, but the schedule is set, it is what it is, and now all that's left is to see how the Cougars fare against the opponents they've lined up.
Along those lines, here is our in-depth look at Houston's non-conference schedule, team-by-team.
UCLA Bruins (4-8 in 2010, 2-7 Pac-10)
Not a lot went right for the Bruins in 2010, except for when they were playing teams from the Lone Star State. They beat ranked Houston and Texas-Austin squads in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 65-25. The rest of the year was something of an unmitigated disaster, and head coach Rick Neuheisel, with just one winning season (7-6 in '09) in his three years at the helm of the program, finds himself squarely on the hot seat.
Cougar fans will remember the UCLA game from last year (if they haven't all had it wiped from their memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style) as the game that both Case Keenum and Cotton Turner went down with season-ending injuries. But make no mistake, the Bruins had long since taken a stranglehold on the game by the time those injuries happened. Houston couldn't stop UCLA's running game, and the talented Bruin secondary had made Keenum a non-factor (10-of-18, 83 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT).
As far as the prospect of UCLA running the ball down Houston's throats again, the bad news for Cougar fans is that they do return their top two running backs in Jonathan Franklin and (Troy High product) Derrick Coleman. The good news is that UCLA has suffered some losses on the offensive line, graduating three starters from last year, and losing talented underclassmen Stan Hasiak to academics. The Bruins are also working in new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and new OC Mike Johnson is talking about putting in "turbo packages", which frankly, is the best possible scenario for Houston. You only have to look back to the Texas Tech game in '09 to remember that it's very possible for an opponent who has the ability to run the ball down Houston's throat to get so caught up in what they "want" to do that they forget that they can dominate the game on the ground. If the Bruins try to implement a new hurry-up system, something that the Cougar defense has faced in practice for years, it will play right into UH's hands.
The Bruins have huge question marks at quarterback, with a three-headed race between juniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, and very highly-touted true freshman Brett Hundley. Hundley had knee-surgery recently, so that may limit his chances of earning the starting nod, putting the competition between two guys who have had their chances to make their mark on the field, and struggled. Then again, the Bruins only needed to throw for 99 yards to dominate Houston last year, so unless Houston's defensive line steps up in a big way, it may not matter.
UCLA's defense figures to be deeper, if less star-studded than a year ago. The Bruins have a number of talented returnees on every unit on defense, but they do lose a 2nd-round NFL draft pick in the linebacking corps (Akeem Ayers) and a 1st-round NFL draft pick in the secondary (safety Rahim Moore). The Cougars neither ran nor threw the ball well against the Bruins last year, giving off the distinct impression that the UCLA defense had "figured out" Houston's high-powered offense. Clearly, the Houston coaching staff will have to figure out how to do things a little differently this time around. If quicksilver back Charles Sims is back to 100% after missing the 2010 season due to academics, that will be a huge step in the right direction.
Finally, it's easy to overstate this point, but it is a point worth making. Last year's game was played in the cool of the Pasadena evening. This year's game will be played in the Houston heat and humidity, with the 2:30 kickoff time specifically picked to maximize that factor. The heat and humidity was clearly a factor in beating Tech two years ago, and that team was used to training in Lubbock. And that game kicked off late in the evening. There just flat-out is no way to prepare for what it's like to play a football game in Houston on a September afternoon unless you live in and train in it every day. I'd be shocked if the weather didn't play a factor in the outcome of the game.
at North Texas Mean Green (3-9 in 2010, 3-5 in Sun Belt)
To get a better grasp on Houston's game with UNT, I e-mailed Brett Vito. Brett writes for the Denton Record-Chronicle and his blog on Mean Green sports can be found here. Here are my questions for Brett, and his responses:
Dustin Rensink: From 2001 to 2004, UNT went 25-1 in Sun Belt play, earning four straight bowl bids. Since, the Mean Green have gone 9-35 in conference play, never winning more than three total games in a year. Simply put, what happened to lead to such a sudden, steep decline?
Brett Vito: There were several factors that led to UNT's decline. To me, none was bigger than the death of quarterback Andrew Smith in a car accident. Smith led UNT to the 2002 Sun Belt title when Scott Hall was injured. Hall came back and regained the job, but Smith looked like he would take over in 2005 after Hall graduated. UNT not only lost Smith, it also lost Joey Byerly, who looked he would be the starter, during the summer of 2005 when he failed to meet academic requirements. UNT was forced to go with Daniel Meager, who had never taken a snap in a college game that season. UNT also lost several key assistants during the bowl years and didn't replace them adequately in a lot of cases. The loss of those coaches hurt UNT in recruiting and the talent level dropped. To make matters even worse, Darrell Dickey suffered a heart attack in 2006, which also impacted the team. You add all of those factors up and it just became too much for UNT to overcome.
DR: The Todd Dodge experiment has finally (mercifully) come to an end, and Dan McCarney (a man near and dear to my heart as the offspring of two Iowa State alumni) has taken over the program. With a new coach and a new stadium on the way, what kind of buzz is the team getting, and what are the expectations in 2011?
BV: There is a lot of buzz surrounding the program. People are interested in UNT football again, ticket sales are way up over last year and the program is receiving more media attention. Dan McCarney has done a great job selling the program. As far as expectations go, it depends on who you ask. McCarney has said that UNT didn't even look like a Division I football team when he arrived from a physical standpoint (he was right, by the way). UNT also lost a ton of talent after last season and recently dismissed last year's leading wide receiver Darius Carey. There just isn't a lot of proven talent coming back. You will see UNT listed with 14 returning starters coming back in some places, but if you take out Carey, that cuts it to 13, take out three guys who have started one game each last year and it drops to 10, then take out center J.J. Johnson who played in just one game last year after being injured in the season opener at Clemson and the number drops to nine. Basically, it comes down to this - On paper, UNT looks like a two- or three-win team at best based on talent. What UNT fans are hoping is that McCarney and his staff are really that much better than Todd Dodge and his staff and that will make the difference and help this team get to six or seven wins. I can see that point of view. Dodge (not to mention the high school assistant coaches he brought with him) were horrible. Where your expectations rest depends on which camp you are in. I am in the middle. I don't see UNT having the talent to be as good as it was last year, but I believe in the staff, which is why I think UNT ends up about 4-8. That a lot better than this team is on paper. I feel like I am being a homer going with four wins. I am usually one win over when it comes to UNT season predictions, for what it's worth.
DR: Prodigious runner Lance Dunbar is back for his senior season, but he loses a trio of experienced starters on the offensive line in front of him. How much of a concern is that for UNT?
BV: The loss of those linemen - Victor Gill and Esteban Santiago -- is a huge concern, as is the loss to tight end/full backs Draylen Ross, Conor Gilmartin-Donohue and Micah Mosley. Every defensive coordinator is going to focus on Dunbar . That was a problem at times last year. Dunbar had just 42 yards against Army, 72 against Florida Atlantic and 30 against Florida International. Dunbar 's down games came early in the year before UNT got rid of Dodge and also came in games where UNT was having quarterback issues. Once Dodge was gone and offensive coordinator Mike Canales took over, UNT - and Dunbar - took off. The question now is if Dunbar has enough around him to be affective. UNT not only lost some key blockers, it also won't have a quarterback who is as big a running threat as Riley Dodge was last year when he was the starter for most of the year.
DR: For those Cougar fans planning on visiting the Denton area for the game, what would you recommend in terms of places to eat, things to see, etc.?
BV: There are a lot of good places to go in Denton . The Pourhouse on the south end of town is a great place to eat and watch a game before heading over to the new stadium.
DR: September 10th, North Texas vs Houston , what's the final score?
BV: I thought it was interesting that UNT scheduled Houston for the first game in the new stadium instead of a FCS team or someone it would be favored to beat. UNT will be sky high emotionally, but I just don't think this team has the horses to get it done. I will get blasted by the UNT faithful for this, but give me Houston 42, UNT 24.
at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (5-7 in 2010, 4-4 in WAC)
Apparently three years of .500 play in the WAC was good enough to earn former Louisiana Tech head man Derek Dooley the head job at Tennessee, and his replacement, Sonny Dykes, followed that up with a .500 WAC campaign in his first year on the job. A number of transfers, from both the junior college and Division 1 levels, look to help the Bulldogs escape mediocrity in 2011, but they will have their hands full against a brutal non-conference schedule, with just five total home games.
On offense, the Bulldogs are led by former Tennessee transfer Lennon Creer. The senior running back ran for over 1100 yards last year, and enters 2011 as one of the top backs from the non-AQ conferences. Louisiana Tech also features a deep receiving corps, with a pair of returners who caught 40+ passes a year ago, and highly-touted junior college transfer Quinton Patton. Another Tennessee transfer, Ahmad Paige, was dismissed from the team in May for a violation of team rules.
The question marks for LT are the quarterback and offensive line positions. The Bulldogs has a revolving door at QB last year, before eventually settling on the now-departed Ross Jenkins. Current juniors Colby Cameron and Tarik Hakmi both struggled when given their chance to take the reins of the offense last year, and they head the depth chart heading into the fall, with Cameron being named the starter for the time being. With junior college transfer Zach Griffith and talented true freshman Nick Isham waiting in the wings as well, one wonders if Dykes will feel the pressure to start rotating quarterbacks around again if Cameron struggles early.
The Bulldogs have four offensive linemen with multiple years of experience at the Division 1 level, but zero experience after that. Dykes recruited the junior college ranks hard this off-season to try and provide depth, but how well and how quickly the group will mesh is a big question mark. Houston has been very susceptible to teams with effective run games, and Creer certainly fills the bill, but will the Bulldogs have the offensive line to open holes for him, and/or a quarterback who can keep the Cougar defense honest?
Defensively, the Bulldogs struggled last year, especially against the pass. They alternate between the 4-3 and 4-2-5 defense, depending on what they expect from the opposition. Houston's spread offense, supported by the Cougars' trio of uber-talented running backs, could give the Bulldogs trouble in this respect. If pass-vulnerable Louisiana Tech feels the need to revert to the nickel defense to stop Case Keenum, it would make it easier for Michael Hayes, Charles Sims and Bryce Beall to run wild.
Georgia State Panthers (6-5 in 2010, 0-1 vs Division 1-A)
It's easy to not spend any time thinking about the 1-AA school on the schedule, but the Georgia State Panthers are actually a pretty interesting story. The 2010 season marked the first year of existence for the school's football program, and they actually managed an overall winning record. To learn a little bit more about them, we enlisted the help of Panther alum, talented writer and all-around good guy Ben Moore of our sister site SB Nation Atlanta.
Dustin Rensink: In its first year of existence, the Georgia State football team went 6-4 non-FBS teams. Were you surprised by the immediate competitiveness of the team at that level?
Ben Moore: I really wasn't because the coaching staff had an entire year in 2009 to practice with the team. They participate through Fall camp, then practiced and lifted weights during the season but with no games. This created a tremendous hunger in those who made it through. The second signing class was veteran heavy with 9 JUCO players and an FCS veteran in FS Jocquez Fears from Northeastern, WR Sidney Haynes from UCF and former Ball State transfer C Ben Jacoby. Then in the Spring, we began to add additional FBS transfers in LT Clyde Yandell and LG Joe Gilbert from Georgia Tech, QB Star Jackson from Alabama and TE Bailey Woods from Auburn. The team still relied on youth but there was definitive leadership amongst the group. The make up of the schedule was also well done in that about 1/3 of the games were games we should have won (NAIA Shorter, NAIA Lambuth, FCS Campbell, FCS Savannah State), 1/3 of which we should be competitive with ( FCS Old Dominion, FCS Morehead State, FCS South Alabama, FCS Lamar) and two difficult to next to impossible to win games (FCS Jacksonville State and defending BCS Title winner Alabama).
DR: The Houston game will be Georgia State's second ever game against an FBS opponent, the first being a 63-7 loss to Alabama to end the 2010 season. What will be the expectations/hopes for the Panthers in the UH game?
BM: I think rationale Panther fans realize what this game is. A chance to test ourselves against a quality FBS opponent. I've taken a preliminary look at each opponent this Fall and I actually believe that this game will be very high scoring from the start as Houston has one of the most potent offenses in the country. It will be a tremendous test and a great learning experience for our linebackers and secondary. We actually play a similar style team on the FCS level two weeks later in Murray State of the OVC who uses a 3-4 WR set and throws it all over the place. My hope is that the Panthers remain competitive and are able to move the ball on offense, something that was next to impossible against Alabama's defense in 2010.
DR: ESPN the Magazine did a front cover article on the birth of the Georgia State program last year. How much did that publicity benefit the program?
BM: That publicity was truly priceless. We were in the right place at the right time. We had an ESPN the Magazine writer in Justin Heckert who lived in Atlanta. We had a coach who was a long time ESPN commentator and contributor. The stars aligned and it was a tremendous lift for us on a national stage essentially announcing our arrival to college football. It was a proud day in Georgia State history. It also had it's drawbacks, believe it or not. It set the bar pretty high for the program and I think those who were not vocal detractors, came out of the woodworks to knock us down. In Week 2, we lost to a quality NAIA school in Lambuth and all of the naysayers basically thought the publicity went to our heads. Fortunately, we have a great head coach and coaching staff that re-focused the team and ripped off four wins in the next five games.
DR: What position has been the biggest struggle for Georgia State to build up thus far, and who are the star players to keep an eye on?
BM: Great question and my immediate response is Quarterback. This has been a tumultuous off season and I think dealing with the initial limited success of a winning season has come at a price. In March, Coach Bill Curry announced that he had suspended 2010 starting QB Drew Little for a violation of team rules for the first four games of 2011. Shortly thereafter, highly touted transfer Star Jackson unplugged from the football program after very limited playing time in 2010 and left the team. On June 22, back up QB and leading rusher out of the WildCat Kelton Hill was arrested for felony burglary and his status is unknown at the point. With Fall practice opening on August 4th, the Panthers will open camp with true Freshman Ben McLane as the projected starter for Week One. It will be very interesting to see over the course of 15 practices, how far he progresses before the Panthers open at home on September 2nd in the Georgia Dome.
There you have it, Cougar fans. How many wins do you see in the non-conference schedule for the Cougars?