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Houston Cougars 2021 season preview, storylines, and schedule breakdown

The Coogs search for their first winning season of the Dana Holgorsen era, hoping to crash into the upper echelon of the AAC.

South Florida v Houston Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The 2021 season should be one of intrigue for a Houston Cougars program that’s hungry to win again.

Head coach Dana Holgorsen aims for a considerable turnaround after consecutive losing seasons to start his tenure, and the Cougars’ roster screams potential with a load of electrifying talent. With a manageable non-conference schedule and familiar faces across the depth chart, Houston has its sights set on AAC contention, and possibly, even more.

2020 in review

Holgorsen reiterated the phrase “glad 2020’s over” several times in his New Mexico Bowl postgame press conference, and with good reason. The COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected this team in a multitude of ways. The season didn’t even launch until the second week of October. In total, five games scheduled in the month of September were axed and the COVID-19 related cancelations resurfaced in November and December.

But on a Thursday night at TDECU Stadium on Oct. 8, the drawn-out waiting period finally concluded. Despite an inspiring comeback win over Tulane in the season opener, things quickly turned south for Holgorsen’s squad. The following Friday, Houston held a 12-point second half lead over a highly-touted BYU team at TDECU Stadium, but appearing on the wrong side of a 22-0 fourth quarter shutout doomed the chances of an upset bid. The Cougars won two games for the remainder of the season, upending Navy on the road and South Florida at home by comfortable margins.

Houston’s most complete outing in 2020 was a 56-21 rout over South Florida in November.
Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The team was outmatched in blowout losses by the conference’s upper-tier teams, UCF and Cincinnati, and the Cougars dropped a heartbreaker to Memphis on a time-expiring field goal to finish AAC play at an even 3-3.

The New Mexico Bowl loss to Hawaii on Christmas Eve left the Cougars with a 3-5 record and sour taste heading into the offseason, but 2020 is in the rearview mirror. Now, 2021 is a new opportunity with less restrictive COVID-19 protocols. In year three at the helm Holgorsen is starting to become fully acquainted to the program, benefiting from the occurrences spring ball and fall camp this year — luxuries the Cougars did not enjoy to the full extent in 2020.

As the college football climate approaches normalcy, it is evident that talent and potential lie within in this program. Houston was ranked No. 4 in the AAC media day poll despite two consecutive losing campaigns, and the Cougars fit the mold as dark horse candidates to land their first conference championship appearance since 2016.

What’s gone? What’s new?

Houston produced its fourth NFL first round round draft pick since 2013 back in April. Payton Turner dominated in the trenches last season and issued five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. The All-AAC defensive end is now a member of the New Orleans Saints, and he played a major role in Houston tying for 16th in sacks per game last season.

The Cougars lost one other defender to the NFL Draft. Outside linebacker Grant Stuard was the final pick of this year’s event, earning the title of “Mr. Irrelevant.” His relevancy was felt on the field at Houston, however, as he nearly doubled the tackle output of any other defender on the team. Stuard was a menace in the backfield with five tackles for loss, and he scored one of two defensive touchdowns for Houston last year on a 34-yard scoop-and-score vs. UCF.

The lone offensive star lost to the draft was Marquez Stevenson. Nicknamed “Speedy”, Stevenson routinely racked up long touchdowns on quick slants and fly routes. With the ability to strike with his speed at anytime, he totaled 14 touchdowns of 50+ yards during his time as a Cougar. His departure forces Houston to mold a new No. 1 receiving threat in the offense. In addition to Stevenson, the Cougars lost more wide receiver depth as Tre’Von Bradley (18 receptions, 228 yards in 2020) headed down I-10 to UTSA in the transfer portal. Keith Corbin (27 receptions, 352 yards) also exited the program to move to the FCS level.

The Cougars reloaded their receiving corps by hauling in a litany of names from the portal. Former Texas Tech starting receiver and Houston-area product KeSean Carter joined the roster in December after accruing 290 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2020. Houston also added UCLA transfer Jaylen Erwin and Old Dominion transfer Jake Herslow to bolster the unit.

The Cougars effectively replaced graduated center Braylon Jones by landing an experienced leader in center Kody Russey, who started 46 games across five seasons at Louisiana Tech. One other major offensive addition was Seth Green, who was voted to captainship for the 2021 season. Green served as a Swiss Army knife at Minnesota, operating as a wildcat quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end. His duties were often utilized in goal line situations and he produced 388 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns during his 3-year stint with the Gophers.

Fresno State v Minnesota
The versatile Seth Green produced 15 rushing touchdowns as a wildcat QB at Minnesota before transferring to Houston.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The changes weren’t limited to on the field though. One major change in the coaching staff this offseason involved defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen moving to Buffalo to serve in a similar role. Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Doug Belk was promoted into the full-fledged coordinator role in Holgorsen’s staff.

Tune’s squad

Offensive output firmly served as the x-factor in determining Houston’s results last season. When the Cougars piled on at least 37 points, they finished a perfect 3-0. In scenarios where fewer than 37 points were scored, the team finished 0-5.

The engineer behind this offense is Clayton Tune, who enters his third season as the team’s primary starting quarterback. Tune was thrust into the role in 2019 when D’Eriq King suddenly opted out of the season following Week 4. After going through trials as a starter in 2019, Tune steadily improved in his second season conducting the offense.

Tune displayed unforeseen flashes of brilliances last October. His first three outings of the year featured three 300-yard performances through the air. During that span, Tune totaled seven passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and showcased a completion percentage of 66.3. Sustaining that production and unleashing it in 2021 will be key, as the quarterback’s accuracy took a bit of a downturn as 2020 progressed. Tune completed under 60 percent of passes in four of his final five games and didn’t attain the 300-yard in any of those outings.

Clayton Tune’s numbers improved across the board in 2020, setting career-highs in completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Tune can revert to the level of play he displayed to start last fall, Houston’s offense will be a force to be reckoned with. But passing isn’t the only dimension the junior captain provides. At times, he can be lethal with his feet although Holgorsen and Co. rarely call his number for designed running plays.

But Tune takes the opportunity when he sees it. He scampered for a career-high 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a decisive win over South Florida last November. When Tune rushes for over 60 yards in a game, it opens up a lot for Houston’s offense. The Cougars average 42.5 points per game when that threshold is crossed, so a scrambling quarterback often translates to prosperity in the scoring department.

Focusing on faster starts

The Cougars played eight games last season. In six of those contests, the team trailed by double-digits in the first half. Houston’s final five showings featured halftime deficits of 21-0, 17-6, 28-10, and 23-7. Overall, the first half point differential was a -31 for the season.

However, the Cougars held a +27 point differential in third quarters and typically came to life after halftime. Two notable examples of third quarter surges included the opener against Tulane (after facing a 24-7 deficit) and the finale against Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl (after facing a 21-0 deficit) — evidence that this trend lingered all season. The only opponent to score multiple times in the third quarter on the Cougars’ defense in 2020 was Memphis, which registered 10 points. Thus, the tale of two halves can be attributed to the discrepancy in defensive execution.

Punting prowess

Here’s one of the most interesting college football stats you will find in a season preview: Houston punter Laine Wilkins punted 38 times last season. Not one single punt was returned for positive yardage. Opponents combined for -5 punt return yards against the Cougars last year. With Wilkins’ skying it with each attempt, Houston is able to prevent opponents from securing solid field position. Even when punting, the Cougars still find ways to gain an advantage.

And when the other team is punting, Houston also has the edge. The Cougars feature electric return specialist Marcus Jones, the only player in the FBS with multiple games of 100+ punt return yardage in 2020. The All-American speedster led the nation in punt return average (19.8) and ran one back to the house against South Florida for his first special teams touchdown in a Cougar uniform. Teams aim to boot it deep out of bounds to avoid the ball landing in Jones’ hands — a developing theme to watch heading into 2021.

Players to watch

Mulbah Car, RB: The Car still runs well after five years. Houston’s backfield will rely on the sixth-year senior more than ever. Car has earned 49 or more carries each season since 2016, recording over 190 yards and multiple touchdowns every time — maxing out at 6.4 yards per carry on 59 touches in 2019. He previously operated as a secondary back to Duke Catalon, Patrick Carr, and Kyle Porter, but the seasoned veteran is set to receive the bulk of carries in 2021. With all of those backs gone, Houston still exhibits solid experience down the running back depth chart — Texas Tech transfer Ta’Zhawn Henry is set to make his Cougar debut and Chandler Smith has contributed 417 yards and two touchdowns since the 2018 season.

Christian Trahan, TE: As each year passes, Trahan’s role increasingly augments in the Houston offense. He was a significant piece of the unit as a strong blocking and potent receiving tight end in 2020. Trahan ranked third on the team in receptions and became a lethal threat on vertical patterns and post routes toward the center of the field. He capped off the 2020 season with the two best performances of his career, setting personal bests in yardage against Memphis (84) and then against Hawaii (88).

Derek Parish / David Anenih, DE: With Payton Turner signing an NFL contract, Parish is responsible to spearhead the pass rushing front. The 6’2”, 245 pound defensive end registered 3.5 sacks and 25 tackles in 2020. He possesses impressive speed for the position, using his agility to slide past opposing linemen. Those attributes were demonstrated on an 85-yard fumble recovery against South Florida in November. Assisting Parish in the pass rush is defensive end David Anenih. A converted outside linebacker, Anenih has identified as a consistent backfield disruptor for the Cougars. He owns 15.5 sacks and three forced fumbles to his name — serving as Houston’s active leader in both statistics.

South Florida v Houston
Nobody could catch Derek Parish during his 85-yard defensive touchdown run in a 56-21 win over South Florida last November.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Damarion Williams, CB: All-American punt returner Marcus Jones lines up at one cornerback slot. Williams holds down the fort at the other end. The senior cornerback played an essential role on Houston’s defense in the 2019 season, loading up the stat sheet with 73 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, a pair of interceptions, and a forced fumble. What stands out about Williams is his hitting ability when compared to other FBS cornerbacks. He plays with a semblance of aggression and isn’t afraid of contact. Houston will need Williams to lead the coverage game this year. The Cougars only intercepted three passes in eight outings in 2020, so he will be called upon to boost that turnover output.

Schedule breakdown

Houston Cougars 2021 Football Schedule

Week Date Opponent Last Meeting
Week Date Opponent Last Meeting
1 Sat, Sept. 4 vs. Texas Tech* L, 63-49 (2018)
2 Sat, Sept. 11 @ Rice W, 45-27 (2018)
3 Sat, Sept. 18 vs. Grambling (FCS) N/A
4 Sat, Sept. 25 vs. Navy W, 37-21 (2020)
5 Fri, Oct. 1 @ Tulsa W, 24-14 (2019)
6 Thu, Oct. 7 @ Tulane W, 49-31 (2020)
7 Sat, Oct. 16 BYE N/A
8 Sat, Oct. 23 vs. East Carolina W, 42-20 (2018)
9 Sat, Oct. 30 vs. SMU L, 34-31 (2019)
10 Sat, Nov. 6 @ South Florida W, 56-21 (2020)
11 Sat, Nov. 13 @ Temple L, 59-49 (2018)
12 Fri, Nov. 19 vs. Memphis L, 30-27 (2020)
13 Sat, Nov. 27 @ UConn W, 24-17 (2019)
14 Sat, Dec. 4 AAC Championship Game N/A
* - denotes neutral site game at NRG Stadium

Houston’s non-conference schedule is arguably the most manageable in the AAC. The Cougars are currently favored in three of four games in the non-conference slate, and the other one is labeled a “pick ‘em”. That “pick ‘em” game is the opener against Texas Tech at the neutral site of NRG Stadium in Houston — home of the Houston Texans.

Houston and Texas Tech share plenty of recent history, as the Red Raiders employed Holgorsen as an assistant coach for the bulk of the 2000s decade. The Cougars and Red Raiders met three times in the 2010s, but Texas Tech emerged victorious in all three, winning a two-game mini series in 2017 and 2018.

The Cougars complete their non-conference schedule with a quick drive across the city to Rice, vying to retain the Bayou Bucket for the sixth-straight meeting. Houston then hosts Grambling of the FCS in Week 3, but the non-conference schedule does not conclude until a trip to Connecticut in the final week of the regular season.

In AAC play, Houston is fortunate to avoid the top two teams from the AAC media day poll — reigning conference champion Cincinnati and UCF. The Cougars also receive hosting duties against the next two highest teams in the media poll — SMU and Memphis. The toughest road games appear to be weeknight trips to Tulsa and Tulane in early October. With fortunate scheduling in AAC play, the path to a conference championship lights up nicely for Holgorsen and the Cougars.

Everything is in place for the wins to start accruing in Houston. The journey to revert to that winning culture commences for Holgorsen and the Cougars on Sept. 4.