While some college football squads saw program highs and others hit rock bottom, the Houston Cougars had one of the most confusing seasons in the college football landscape.
The Cougars started off the season as one of the hottest teams in the country with a 5-0 start and a win over no. 3 Oklahoma in the opening weekend. This caused many college football fans to mark their calendars for the showdown in November against Louisville which was essentially a College Football Playoff play-in game. There were no problems in Houston until the Cougars hit a major mid-season slump.
The problems started with a six-point loss at Navy on October 8th and a 38-16 loss at SMU two weeks later. These losses took Houston out of the public eye, took them out of the College Football Playoff talk, and not much to play for other than a spot in a bowl game. The Cougars did have one motivating factor, however: spoiling Louisville’s season. The Cougars welcomed the no. 3 Louisville Cardinals into TDECU Stadium by trouncing the Cardinals, and eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, by a final score of 36-10. The Houston defense looked unstoppable, recording a season-high 11 sacks.
That would be the last highlight of the Houston Cougar season. The following week Houston fell at Memphis 48-44 and ended the regular season 9-3 (5-3 in AAC). To top off the disappointing end, head coach Tom Herman left for the Texas head coaching position. Herman caught the eye of several big name schools and it seemed to be a given that he would leave at the end of the year. Following Herman’s departure, the Cougars lost their bowl game in a dismal 34-10 performance against San Diego State.
Any G5 school would take a 9-4 season and call it a success. Houston isn’t your typical G5 school. With expectations of a potential run at the playoff, ending the season with a blowout loss to San Diego State makes this a disappointing year.
Houston now faces a future that will take quite a bit of rebuilding. Houston promoted offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to the head coaching spot after two years as the Cougars OC. While Applewhite may be a young and hungry coach there will be growing pains. The other major downside comes from losing their best player on offense and losing a top defender. Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr is graduating after recording 8,705 passing yards and 2,375 rushing yards in his four years at Houston. Ward Jr was one of the few offensive weapons this past season that struggled greatly in the running game. The Cougars are also losing top corner Howard Wilson to the NFL draft. Wilson suffered a season ending injury in 2015 as a sophomore but was given a medical waiver to keep his sophomore season eligibility. Wilson snagged a team-high five interceptions in 2016.
The Cougars might be losing a few defensive threats but will return two of their top performers, Matthew Adams and Ed Oliver. Adams led the team with 82 total tackles in 2016 (7.5 tackles for loss). Oliver had a ferocious freshman season with a team-high 23 tackles for loss (66 total tackles).
With the AAC in a bit of transition due to coaching changes that swept the conference, the Coogs could be in play for the AAC title yet again. If the offense can find someone to fill Greg Ward Jr’s shoes it’s not hard to imagine Houston winning the conference title.