The Houston Cougars enter the 2011 season with a chance to have a special year as they will look to join Boise State, TCU, and Hawaii as the only non-BCS schools to play in a BCS bowl game. The Cougars had a rough go in 2010, due in large part to starting quarterback and Heisman candidate Case Keenum going down with an ACL injury. With Keenum back and fully healthy this team has an excellent chance to win double-digit games and potentially crash the BCS party.
Kevin Sumlin has implemented one of the best “run and gun” offenses in college football since becoming the Cougars head coach in 2007. Last season, the Cougars averaged nearly 40 points per contest, and having Keenum back is only going to make the offense even more potent. Keenum will likely become the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns and has a chance to set multiple single-season records. When healthy in 2009, Keenum threw for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns, while completing over 70% of his passes. Keenum is beginning to draw comparisons to former Cougar quarterback Kevin Kolb, which demonstrates that he is not just another system quarterback but, rather, possesses real NFL qualities.
Houston’s firepower doesn’t end with Keenum. The Cougars bring back All-Conference wide receiver Patrick Johnson, who has produced back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and will look to build off that, as he and Keenum have great chemistry. Johnson found the end zone 13 times in 2010, while playing with third string quarterback, David Piland. With a healthy Keenum behind center, don’t be surprised if Johnson is an All-American this season.
Many are quick to assume Houston is a team that airs it out play after play, which could not further from the truth as the Cougars have an extremely balanced offense. The Cougars have a two-headed monster in the backfield. Running backs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes will look to build off excellent 2010 seasons. If there is anything good that came from Keenum’s injury, it is that Sumlin discovered the Cougars can run the football. Beall is the truer running back of the two as he rushed for 870 yards on 163 carries and found the end zone 12 times. Hayes, on the other hand, is the more dual-threat of the two. He has the ability to both run the football and catch passes out of the backfield. He rushed for 629 yards and 8 touchdowns, while catching 30 passes out of the backfield. In short, teams will not be able to drop back in nickel and dime defenses waiting for Keenum to air it out 50 times a game. Houston has tremendous balance on offense, which is something that the Cougars have never had.
If Houston wants to have a dream season in 2011 the Cougars will need to improve vastly on defense. Houston’s run defense was nothing short of pathetic last season (allowed 32.7 points per game), and the Cougars lost their top two corners to graduation. The Cougars will start two true freshmen at corner in D.J. Hayden and Chevy Bennett. These two are going to have to play extremely well in their first season in Houston as Conference USA is a heavy passing conference. The Cougars will have to tighten up their run defense as well. Last season, Houston allowed over 200 rushing yards per game. Senior linebacker Marcus McGraw will need to continue to produce as he has recorded over 100 tackles in the last two seasons. If McGraw and the rest of the line-backing core can step it up, Houston will have a great season.
The Houston offense is going to put up points. Everybody knows that. It will be their defense that determines their fate. It’s not like the Cougars defense has to go out there week in and week out and be dominate. The defense just has to be good enough as they know that Keenum and company are going to produce a plethora of points in each game.
With Heisman candidate Keenum leading the offense and a defense that seems to be vastly improved, the Cougars have a great chance to crash the BCS party. They have a very favorable schedule as they play just one BCS team in UCLA. If Houston can get it done in week one against Bruins, watch out – we could have another BCS buster on our hands.
Written By: Jay Louis
Edited By: Jeff Keim