A dynamic rush attack and a stingy defense (20.6 ppg allowed, No. 15 in the FBS) should help smooth the transition for Houston’s new coaching staff, but the Cougars will have to get past a trip to Louisville and a home date with Vanderbilt to make a third straight bowl appearance.
How the Cougars beat you: “We’ll strive to be a downhill running team that plays fast,” coach Tom Herman says. The first-year head man (and former Ohio State offensive coordinator) brings his no-huddle, tempo-based scheme to Houston and immediately inherits one of the AAC’s premier rushing attacks: Senior Kenneth Farrow ran for 100-plus yards seven times last season and delivered a league-high 14 TDs on the ground. Farrow won’t shoulder the load alone: Junior QB Greg Ward Jr. provides wheels under center, averaging 4.9 ypc on 118 rushes in 2014.
How you beat the Cougars: Houston’s magic number: 30. The Cougars went 1–5 in games in which they attempted more than 30 passes. When they attempted fewer? 7–0. If defenses successfully load the box, Houston isn’t just a mediocre passing team, it’s a truly bad one: 6.7 ypa (No. 84 in the FBS), 18 TDs (72nd) and eight games held to under 250 yards in the air. Herman is a QB guru (see J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones et al.), and Ward shows promise, though he’s still in the development phase of his passing career: 57.8 QBR and a modest 27 completions of 20-plus yards. And life won’t get easier with WR Deontay Greenberry, who caught eight of those long completions, departing early for the NFL.
How the Cougars beat you: New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando made his living coaching ball-hawking defenses at Utah State: 60 turnovers in 2013 and 2014 combined, eighth most in the country in that time span. Waiting for him in Houston is a defense that had 19 interceptions in 2014 (No. 8 in the FBS), 15 from defensive backs who return to the secondary in 2015—including senior safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart, who racked up 174 yards on INT returns combined. The Cougars scored 60 more points off turnovers than their opponents, the nation’s 11th-best margin last year, and with their aggressive backfield intact, they should anticipate similar returns this fall.
How you beat the Cougars: If Houston excelled at thwarting quarterbacks downfield, it was merely mediocre when it came to hounding them in the pocket. The Cougars collected 27 sacks last year (No. 62 in the FBS), with only seven coming on third down (No. 99). And the defensive line loses its top three sack artists -- Trevor Harris, Joey Mbu and Gavin Stansbury (8 sacks combined) -- so Houston will need junior DE B.J. Singleton (11 starts in 2014) to occupy blockers and provide more disruption than he offered last season: 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss.