Houston Cougars season preview

Houston Cougars

Coach: Tony Levine (6-7 overall, 6-7 at Houston)

2012 record: 5-7

Key losses: RB Charles Sims, DB D.J. Hayden, LB Phillip Steward

Key returnees: CB Zachary McMillian, QB David Piland, LB Derrick Mathews

Newcomer to watch: K Ty Cummings

Biggest games in 2013: BYU (Oct. 19), Cincinnati (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Kevin Sumlin had Houston on the national radar before taking the head-coaching position at Texas A&M. A season after going 13-1 and beating Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl, Houston was 5-7 in Levine’s first full year as the head coach. In his second season, Levine has the challenge of getting Houston back to its glory days of two years ago. With new practice fields and a new stadium being built, is Levine on the hot seat if he can’t make this season a successful one?

Forecast: Returning 10 starters from an offense that averaged 32.4 points and 480 yards per game in 2012, the Cougars will need that unit to compensate for the holes on defense. Piland is entering his third season as a starter after amassing 2,929 passing yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Furthermore, 10 of the top 13 receivers from last year are back. Houston will be without its top two running backs from last year, so Ryan Jackson is expected to be the No. 1 rushing option, providing some balance to a pass-heavy offense. Piland had 12 interceptions last season, and Levine wants to see that number reduced.

“We were a young football team last season,” Levine said. “And we did some great things offensively in terms of putting points on the board, but certainly we turned the ball over way, way too much.”

Levine’s main change for this season was on defense, making David Gibbs the defensive coordinator. While the Cougars will miss Hayden, who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft, their most experience on defense will be in the secondary with Trevon Stewart returning after garnering freshman All-America honors.

Picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll, Houston has one of the easier nonconference schedules in the American Athletic, so if it wins those games, it has a chance of a winning record this season. Five of the Cougars' last six games will be against the expected top five teams in the American Athletic.

“Everybody certainly remembers two years ago being 13-1 and beating Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl, and the year before that we were 5-7,” Levine said. “So we want to build into a consistent winner, one that's going to bowl games and competing for championships every season.”