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Looking back at South Alabama head coach Major Applewhite’s tenure at Houston

The Jaguars announced the internal head coaching hire of Major Appelwhite. How did he perform at his last stop?

South Alabama v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

South Alabama did not expect to find itself as one of the spokes on the offseason coaching carousel.

The Jaguars made history on Dec. 23, pulverizing Eastern Michigan 59-10 in the 68 Ventures Bowl to secure their first-ever bowl victory. Early signing day was already in the rearview mirror, and after that dominant showing in Mobile, AL, it was time for South Alabama to look forward to 2024.

But suddenly, commotion was heard 200 miles north from Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban announced retirement and the coveted head coach position of college football’s greatest modern dynasty was suddenly vacant. Washington’s Kalen DeBoer claimed it, causing a domino effect of coaching hires which bled down all the way to San Jose State.

But South Alabama wasn’t involved in that specific ripple. Instead, the Jaguars were affected because head coach Kane Wommack resigned from his position to take a defensive coordinator gig on DeBoer’s staff at Alabama, completing the rare move from head coach to assistant.

South Alabama didn’t search too far to fulfill the unexpected vacancy. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite was officially named the program’s fourth head coach Thursday, Jan. 18. Applewhite was a mainstay all three seasons in the Wommack era, which unquestionably is the greatest stretch in South Alabama history. The Jaguars won a program-record 10 games in 2022 and claimed their first bowl victory one month ago — recording back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since joining the FBS.

Applewhite guided South Alabama to a top 30 finish in both scoring offense and total offense, producing the unit’s best numbers ever this past season. While Applewhite has vast offensive coordinator experience, ranging from Rice to Alabama to Texas to Houston, this won’t be his first rodeo in a head coaching role. In fact, this is the second time he earned an internal promotion from offensive coordinator to head coach, receiving similar treatment from Houston prior to the 2017 season.

Applewhite’s head coaching career at Houston only last two seasons, but he manufactured a 15-11 record with two winning campaigns. Before the 45-year old earns another crack at leading an FBS program, let’s revisit how the highs and lows of the first tenure:

What went right: Everything offensively

Tulsa v Houston
Houston fielded a top five scoring offense under starting QB D’Eriq King in 2018 with Major Applewhite as head coach.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Part of the appeal of hiring Applewhite to be Tom Herman’s successor in Houston was his excellence in running the offense. The Cougars fielded high-powered scoring machines in 2015 and 2016 with Applewhite as offensive coordinator, and when he became the frontman in 2017, that trend certainly sustained.

In his first season as head coach in 2017, Applewhite was tasked with breaking in a new quarterback to replace departed star Greg Ward Jr. Roughly halfway through the season, Applewhite found the perfect fit in D’Eriq King — who like Ward, transitioned from wide receiver to quarterback. King led a fourth quarter comeback victory over a ranked South Florida squad in late October and subsequently earned starting duties for the remainder of the season. With a first-year starting quarterback, Houston finished 40th in total offense, clearly on the upswing as King was still getting acquainted into the role.

In 2018, Applewhite unearthed a star in King, while incorporating more tempo into his spread offense. Houston hired offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to pair with the quarterback and the Cougars started invading the end zone like nobody’s business. Houston landed 5th nationally in scoring at 43.9 points per game, 8th in total offense, and showed tremendous balance with top 25 finishes in both rushing and passing yards per game. Those numbers may have been even higher if King didn’t suffer a season-ending injury and miss the final two contests (where Houston averaged 22.5 points per game) after he accounted for 36 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing touchdowns in a dominant season.

In addition to King’s dual-threat success, Houston saw breakout stars in running back Patrick Carr and wide receiver Marquez Stevenson contribute heavily to the unit. The Cougars housed a factory of skill position talent in the Applewhite era, where any running back or receiver who saw the field instantly produced NCAA 14 Dynasty Mode numbers. In Applewhite’s most recent season as a head coach, only four teams generated more points per game and three participated in the College Football Playoff that year.

South Alabama always featured dormant offenses prior to Applewhite’s arrival. The Jaguars ranked below 90th in scoring offense every year from 2014 through Applewhite’s first season in 2021. But in 2022, the offense took a significant leap from 24.9 to 31.2 points per game to register a national ranking of 47th. Then in Applewhite’s third year working with the unit in 2023, it made incremental steps to 33.1 points per game — good for the nation’s 28th best offense. Elevating the offense is already one attribute the newly-appointed head coach brought to this team as coordinator, and he hopes to maintain that progress amidst the job title change.

What went wrong: Pass defense (and Army)

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - Houston v Army
Army defeated Houston 70-14 in the 2018 Armed Forces Bowl, marking the final game of Applewhite’s tenure.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Given Houston’s insane scoring numbers and a 15-11 overall record, there had to be one significant element contributing to the loss column during Applewhite’s 26 games at the helm. That was the passing defense, a heel of the team which never materialized during his two seasons in H-Town.

In 2017, Houston fielded an above-average defense, finishing 42nd in fewest points allowed per game at 23.8. The Cougars’ shielded some of their coverage issues by ranking among the nation’s elite in interceptions and red zone defense. But the pass defense ranked 120th out of 130 teams, surrendering 274 yards per game. That offseason, it was clear Houston’s offense would take a leap in King’s second year as a starter. Thus, demonstrating improvement in the secondary was the determinant if Houston could pry back into New Year’s Six contention.

That didn’t happen. Houston finished the 2018 season situated at 124th in the FBS in pass defense, allowing 276 yards per game through the air. But this time, the run defense didn’t hold its own and the Cougars ranked 4th-to-last in total yards allowed and 12th-to-last in points given up. A 63-49 loss to Texas Tech summarized the defensive struggles that season, highlighted by former Red Raider and current Oklahoma State quarterback Alan Bowman firing for 605 yards and five touchdowns on the Cougar defense.

Yes, Applewhite is a lifelong offensive coach, but one of the most challenging aspects of assuming a head coach position — every facet of the game becomes the head coach’s responsibility. Defense was the ultimate factor which cut Applewhite’s tenure short in Houston, and that was especially evident in the final straw which led to his firing — the 2018 Armed Forces Bowl.

Houston initially opened as a narrow favorite over Army in the matchup, but there couldn’t have been more separation between the teams. The Black Knights’ triple option attack eviscerated the Cougars on that December evening to a humiliating degree. Army racked up 597 yards including 502 on the ground and registered nine touchdowns on 10 offensive possessions. The 56-point drudging on the bowl season stage was enough for Houston to make a leadership change a week later.

But in his new role, the good news for Applewhite is he already possesses an established foundation at South Alabama. The Jaguars posted the 28th-ranked pass defense this past season and he returns a fourth-year defensive coordinator in Corey Batoon. The on-field talent is yet to be fully determined as transfers are still entering and exiting the portal, but consecutive years of featuring top 30 scoring defenses demonstrates Batoon and this staff are able to adapt to this modern era of constant personnel changes.

What went right: Starting seasons strong

Houston Chronicle
Houston defeated ranked South Florida teams in consecutive seasons under Applewhite. In 2018, the win over USF launched Houston to No. 17 in the AP Poll.
Photo by Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Houston never stumbled out of the gate when Applewhite manned the sidelines. The Cougars became accustomed to strong starts, which were also a defining feature of the Herman era.

In 2017, Applewhite’s Cougars saw their season opener canceled due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, but the team rebounded from adversity and knocked off a quality Arizona team on the road in Week 2. Houston rode the momentum captured in Tucson to a 4-1 start — taking out three above-.500 teams during that span and launching conference play with a 2-0 record.

In 2018, Houston only started stronger. The Cougars staged a dominant second half to fly by Rice on the road in Week 1. Then in Week 2, they decimated Arizona in the rematch at TDECU Stadium. The 2-0 start was briefly interrupted by that aforementioned Texas Tech defensive debacle, but Houston maturely responded by rattling off five consecutive victories to jump to 7-1. Among those wins included a 57-36 thrashing of undefeated No. 21 South Florida — a result which launched the Cougars from unranked to No. 17 in the first AP Poll of November.

While the back-end of neither season mirrored the early success, as Applewhite finished 0-3 in bowl games, Houston definitely came prepared to play each September and portions of October under the head coach. Just like a 3-point specialist needs to see one shot go in to catch fire, some teams like 2022 TCU improve when they realize their winning capabilities early on. If Applewhite is able to replicate that September success at South Alabama, perhaps the Jaguars can acquire that confidence and finally make the jump to Sun Belt contention.

What went wrong: Program expectations

68 Ventures Bowl - South Alabama v Eastern Michigan
Major Applewhite must serve as the successor to Kane Wommack at South Alabama. Wommack led the Jaguars to their first 10-win season in 2022 and first bowl win in 2023.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

It hasn’t been understated that Kalen DeBoer has a difficult task ahead at Alabama. He must serve as the successor to the greatest head coach in college football history, attempting to maintain the playoff-qualifying, national championship-winning machine Nick Saban built at Alabama.

In a similar fashion, Applewhite probably landed the Houston job at the most challenging time possible. Under Herman’s direction in 2016, the Cougars won nine games, were ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP Poll, and defeated two top-five opponents — Oklahoma and Louisville — both by double-digits. And the year prior, Houston claimed an AAC title, knocked off Florida State on the New Year’s Six stage in the Peach Bowl, and finished No. 8 in the country with four ranked wins. The Cougars made significant splashes in the recruiting world under Herman too, landing 5-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver who was a First Team All-American as a true freshman in 2016.

That being said, when Applewhite was hired, the expectation was competing annually for AAC championships, qualifying for New Year’s Six bowls, and knocking off ranked opponents on a regular basis. Instead, Houston recorded a 7-5 record in Applewhite’s first season. Then in 2018, the Cougars posted an 8-5 mark, most infamously dropping that Armed Forces Bowl to Army in brutal 70-14 fashion. At the time, it tied the largest margin of defeat in bowl history, and Applewhite was fired eight days after that rout.

Although the results fell flat of the lofty expectations set by the Herman era, Applewhite still finished with two winning seasons in Houston and climbed the ladder back up to his second FBS head coaching position. It’s no secret the expectations at South Alabama at grander than they were two years ago, certainly cranking up a notch after consecutive winning seasons including a 10-3 showing. But it’s safe to say 15 wins in two years in Mobile would be viewed as a sign of progress for a program that struggled to find the win column for the majority of its FBS life.

Applewhite’s second opportunity at a head coaching position officially launches Aug. 31 in Mobile, when South Alabama hosts North Texas in a non-conference showdown. And this time, he has previous head coaching experience to look back on when leading his new program.