TULSA, OK - NOVEMBER 25: Offensive lineman Jacolby Ashworth of the Houston Cougars celebrates with the band after the game against the Tulsa Hurricanes November 25, 2011 at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Houston defeated Tulsa 48-16. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
It's no secret that Jacolby Ashworth and the Cougars are facing something less than the nation's toughest schedule this year. But how many victories will that translate to? Vegas weighs in.
College football news that is not of the "four power conferences using their leverage to screw everybody else over" variety is hard to come by in these dog days of summer. But earlier this month, Beyond the Bets came out with a line for all 798 games involving Division 1-A football teams in the 2012 season, providing some discussion fodder centered around actual football being played. BTB is a recreational site, not an actual book, but when the Golden Nugget came out with 111 actual bet-able lines a few days later, almost all of them were within a point or two of what BTB came up with.
So let's see how the oddsmakers feel about the 2012 Houston Cougar football season.
Texas State at Houston - Cougars by 36.5
It's hard to know how a team like Texas State will fare in its first season at the 1-A level, so the line is set just below the margin of victory for Houston (68-28) when the two teams played to open the 2010 season. The Coogs had Case Keenum for that 40-point victory, but David Piland has a better overall team around him than Case had in that game. Then again, building up for the promotion to 1-A, the Bobcats also figure to be better than they were in a season that saw them go just 1-6 in Southland Conference games. I expect the Cougars to win easily, but this line may be a little high.
Louisiana Tech at Houston - Cougars by 3.5
I wasn't sure that the Cougars would be favored in this one, given that they needed a miracle comeback to win last year in Ruston, and that the Bulldogs have quarterback Colby Cameron returning. (Cameron ended up beating out Nick Isham - the quarterback the Cougars faced - for the starting job, and Isham transferred in the offseason.) The good news for Houston is that Tech loses several key contributors from the defense that stymied the Coogs for two and a half quarters a year ago. If Houston's experienced offensive line can dominate Tech's inexperienced front seven, David Piland and the Cougars will be able to put up points in bunches, and beat the spread and the Bulldogs.
It will be interesting to see what happens with this line if Houston scores an easy opening victory against Texas State, and Louisiana Tech loses by a wide margin in their opener against Texas A&M.
Houston at UCLA - Bruins by 2.5
Another line that raised my eyebrows, as I expected the Bruins to be favored by more than this. That's not to say that the Cougars can't win the game, but the Cougars won by just four last year, the series shifts from Houston back to Pasadena (where the Bruins won by 18 two years ago), and UCLA returns more key players than does UH. If either Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut (or one of the talented incoming recruits) has developed enough to take a strong hold on the quarterback job, Houston could be in trouble, as big target Joseph Fauria returns after pulling in 110 yards worth of passes against the Cougars at the Rob last year.
I don't expect the Cougars to completely crap the bed like they did the last time they headed to the Rose Bowl, but with an experienced secondary and quarterback play that almost has to be better than last year, I think the smart money's on the Bruins here.
Houston vs Rice - Cougars by 21.5
Despite the short road trip for the visitor, home field has meant everything in this series over the past four years. In '08 and '10, the Owls scored upset victories at home, while the Coogs obliterated Rice in '09 and '11. This year, the series shifts to Reliant Stadium. Unless the Cougar offense suffers a bigger hiccup than anyone is anticipating, they should be able to move the ball against a Rice defense that hasn't been good in many, many years, and doesn't show a lot of promise to be much better in 2012. It's possible that junior Taylor McHargue or freshman Driphus Jackson has a huge breakout season at the quarterback position, but if not, Rice will struggle to keep up, making this line look about right.
North Texas at Houston - Cougars by 23
The Cougars stumbled a little bit out of the blocks against the Mean Green last year, but found their footing and cruised to a 25-point victory. This year the series shifts from Denton to Houston, and while UNT has most of their offensive starters returning (1,100-yard rusher Lance Dunbar excepted), their overall depth does take a hit. In total, North Texas loses 27 of 62 letterwinners. (By way of comparison, the Cougars are expected to be going through a "rebuilding year" and lose 18 of 71 letterwinners from 2011.)
Dan McCarney is a good coach, and in the years to come, he'll have UNT competitive in the new Conference USA. But I just don't think that the 2012 version of the Mean Green has the horses to hang with the Cougars. The 23-point line seems low, if anything.
UAB at Houston - Cougars by 27
The third straight game in which the Cougars open as three-touchdown favorites is a match-up with the Blazers. It will be a battle of first-year head coaches, as Garrick McGee replaces former UH assistant Neil Callaway as the head man in Birmingham. He has some weapons to work with on offense, but talent and experience will be big question marks on the offensive line and all over the defense. Much like with the Rice and UNT games, if the Cougars aren't putting up points fast enough to justify these big lines, it will mean that Keenum was even more valuable than anybody realized.
Houston at SMU - Cougars by 1
June Jones beat the Cougars in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl, while coaching Hawaii. But since taking over the Mustangs, Jones has gone 0-4 against UH, losing the last three games by an average of 26 points. (Strangely enough, SMU's one close-fought game against the Cougars under Jones came during their 1-11 campaign in 2008.) On paper, I'm not sure how the Mustangs have rebounded by 25 points to justify this line. Granted, while the Garrett Gilbert experiment may not be an overwhelming success, he does figure to be better than JJ McDermott, and Zach Line is a force to be reckoned with, but it's hard to imagine the SMU offense not suffering from the graduation of all five starters on the offensive line. The Mustangs also lose a Conference USA 1st Team and 2nd Team selection on the defensive line. The Cougars should have a big advantage in the trenches, and unless Gilbert exceeds all expectations, Houston's run of dominance over the ponies should continue.
UTEP at Houston - Cougars by 18.5
The Miners and Cougars have been playing each other annually since UTEP joined Conference USA in 2005. This year will be the first game between the two schools which does not feature either Kevin Kolb or Case Keenum at quarterback for the Coogs. (They even faced Keenum before his injury in 2010. Talk about not being able to catch a break.)
The Miners always seem to play Houston closer than they should, but it's worth noting that the Cougars have won five of the last six match-ups in this series, UTEP has never beaten Houston in Houston, and the Miners are just 6-22 in Conference USA road games, and 9-27 overall on the road in the last six years under Mike Price.
Looking at the talent on the field, quarterback Nick Lamaison will have a much more experienced offensive line in front of him compared to last year, but all three members of his stable of running backs are gone. The Miner defense has some talent, but not enough to scare anybody. Bottom line, if Lamaison really blossoms, this game could be closer than the line indicates. If he repeats last year's numbers, and is still completing under 60% of his passes, with about as many picks as touchdowns, this one will be a laugher, because Houston is arguably more talented at every position on the field.
Houston at East Carolina - Cougars by 4.5
After winning the C-USA title game in both 2008 and 2009, the Pirates have faded to the middle for the past two seasons, going a combined 11-14 (9-7 in conference play) and not finishing within a game of first in the East either year under Ruffin McNeill. But this may be the year for the Pirates to return to relevance. They lose 11th-year senior* Dominique Davis at quarterback, but he fell victim to the interception bug last year, and if his replacement can at least do a better job of throwing to the right team, the Pirates might be better off without him. There is talent everywhere else on the field, and the Pirates will be itching to atone for a humiliating 56-3 beat-down at Robertson Stadium a year ago. Houston could very possibly be riding five straight double-digit victories heading into this game, so if they don't give the Pirates their full respect and attention, this could be a possible upset.
On the plus side, ECU's defense will be going from trying to gameplan Navy's offense one week to Houston's offense the next. That's not going to be easy.
*Yes, I realize that a Houston fan cracking jokes about a quarterback who was around forever is a cheap shot. Sue me.
Tulsa at Houston - Cougars by 4.5
The match-up between the two (on paper) most talented teams in the West Division happily takes place at the Rob. Like UH, Tulsa is tasked with replacing a multi-year starter at QB in G.J. Kinne, and figures to hand the job to Nebraska transfer Cody Green. Despite the loss of Kinne and stud linebacker Curnelius Arnick, Tulsa is right there with Houston in terms of overall talent.
In fact, there's enough talent that the Golden Hurricane is listed as the favorite in seven of its first eight games of the season (and a 2-point underdog in the other) before facing Arkansas and Houston in consecutive weeks. If that sounds strangely familiar to you, it's because in 2008, Tulsa opened the season 8-0, before losing to the Razorbacks by a touchdown, and getting their doors blown off in Houston the next week, losing to the Cougars 70-30.
The talent in this match-up is pretty even across the board, so it really comes down to which quarterback develops better over the course of the season. And, hopefully, home-field advantage.
Houston at Marshall - Cougars by 9
Mark my words - don't sleep on the Thundering Herd. Marshall went to and won a bowl game last year despite a freshman quarterback, and a freshman and sophomore splitting carries at running back. They all return, and the Herd's two top receivers are back for their senior seasons. The offensive line was less than stellar a year ago, but has three returning starters to go with some highly-touted recruits, and should be improved.
Defensively, the Herd lose their top four tacklers, including all-everything defensive lineman Vinny Curry. But it's not all bad news for Marshall, as (by my count) six BCS-caliber players will be debuting for the Herd on defense this year. Freshman defensive lineman Steve Dillon comes to Marshall after failing to qualify at USC. Linebacker Kent Turene comes to Marshall via Georgia due to eligibility issues. Defensive back D.J. Hunter was originally a Tennessee commit, before losing his scholarship after allegedly shooting a 15-year old boy in the face with a BB gun. Defensive back Amos Leggett joins Marshall after switching his commitment from Miami to Florida State and back. And in recent weeks, a pair of Boston College safeties (Dominick LeGrande and the excellently-named Okechukwu Okoroha) enrolled in grad school at Marshall to take advantage of their last year of eligibility.
Yes, we're talking about a team that the Cougars absolutely pantsed at the Rob last year. But with the game in Huntington, if you could guarantee me that the Cougars escape with a victory by any margin (and that all band carts are kept a safe distance from the field) I'd be ecstatic.
Tulane at Houston - Cougars by 29
Sure, 29 points is a high line, but Houston has beaten the Green Wave nine years in a row, the last eight coming by an average margin of just a hair over 29 points, so it actually makes some sense. Tulane is 2-14 in C-USA road games over the past four years, and while there is plenty of experience on the roster, the talent gap is still massive. The only real question is how badly Tony Levine wants to run up the score in the final game ever played at Robertson Stadium.
What say you, Cougar fans? If you were to wager some skittles on one of these games, which would it be?