College football countdown: Will Houston make the Playoff?
Note: Over the next two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Houston, a team that finished 13-1 last year and was ranked 13th in the USA Today Coaches preseason poll.
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Ryan Cooper: We're now just two weeks away from the season, so let's continue this series with No. 13 Houston.
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It can't be understated how big Houston recovered after its only loss last year, beating very good Navy and Temple teams before trouncing Florida State in the Peach Bowl. I think the Cougars proved their value in those three games, and with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. shooting for a Heisman, I believe they can go to the Playoff this season.
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But I don't think this is the year where Houston breaks through and becomes the first Group of Five program to make the CFP.
You mentioned the Cougars' season opener against No. 3 Oklahoma. That will be a must-watch between two of the most dynamic quarterbacks and top offenses in the nation.
But the primetime matchup also serves as a double-edged sword for Houston. While a win would be largely looked at by the Playoff selection committee at the end of the season, a loss would almost bury the Cougars' Playoff chances right away. It may be unfair, but there's not much leeway here.
Outside of Oklahoma, the closest to a marquee matchup Houston has on its schedule may be No. 23 Louisville, Navy or Memphis. All three are good teams, but none of these wins would stand out enough to propel a one-loss Cougars team.
While teams like Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma may be able to survive a single regular season loss with their schedules, it's likely that it's one strike and you're out for Houston.
But then again, it's not too crazy to count out the Cougars for a week one upset victory.
RC: It certainly does seem like a situation where the first game could represent the entire season for Houston. Admittedly, I don't love the matchup against a pass-first team like Oklahoma when Houston's secondary was already questionable last year and has lost several players including William Jackson III, Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart. That's 11 interceptions last year between the three of them.
But Houston did boast one of the best run defenses last year, and it's easy to forget that Oklahoma still averaged 222 rushing yards per game last year led by Samaje Perine, making that a huge part of its offense. Baker Mayfield can't do everything, and any time you can contain the run you really tighten up the passing game.
If the secondary can prevent Mayfield from going over the top to his receivers on deep balls, and the front seven can put some pressure on Mayfield, Houston could fare better against the Sooners than you would think on paper.
AC: Houston's front seven probably doesn't get as much attention as it deserves given the Cougars' explosive offense. I agree that this unit could cause fits for Mayfield with its aggressive and relentless style of play.
But you mentioned the issues with the secondary. Senior cornerback Brandon Wilson is the only returning starter while rising sophomores and juniors will try to fill in the other gaps.
Houston's front seven can very well carry this side of the ball, but it's interesting to see if the defense will have to dial back its aggressiveness at all to help out in coverage and whether this causes any loss in effectiveness.
That could pose an issue right away against the Sooners.
RC: I can't disagree with you there, and the heavy edge has to be given to Oklahoma even in a "neutral" site that is really in the Cougars' backyard.
But you can never count out Houston when it has its ace in the hole in Ward out there. The native Texan was unbelievable last year, throwing for close to 3,000 yards while running for more than 1,100. He is a master improviser when he leaves the pocket and his 67.2 percent completion rate was ninth in the nation. That number is almost identical to the one he had during his sophomore year, so there's no reason to expect any sort of regression in that department.
It's going to be really fun to see what tricks Ward can pull out for his final season, and any high expectation for Houston should and will start with him.
I think it's also important to point out that Ward will be getting some big help that he was missing last year in the form of Texas transfer Duke Catalon in the backfield. Catalon had to sit out last year but should be a major boost to the offense and take some of the pressure off Ward, both literally and figuratively. With a good runner going up the middle, that should force defenses to either keep their corners leaning in to stop Ward from getting to the outside -- which would open up the passing game -- or give Ward more space to run free. Either way, it makes the offense all the deadlier.
AC: Yes, but even Houston’s offense has some lingering questions, however small they may seem. Ward has most of his top weapons back in addition to Catalon and Oklahoma State wide receiver transfer Ra’Shaad Samples. However, the offensive line will look slightly different with two new starters at offensive tackle.
The Cougars’ offensive line played superbly last season, allowing just 28 sacks and giving Ward plenty of time to create big-time plays. While there shouldn’t be a major dropoff this year, it’s worth questioning how Na’Ty Rodgers, a junior college transfer, will fit in at the blind side and how redshirt freshman Josh Jones or anyone else steps up at right tackle.
If Houston wants to take advantage of Ward’s speed outside the numbers, he’ll need some time in the pocket to observe the field and find some open space to turn on the jets. With Ward's ability to make plays on his feet, he'll also need to stay healthy over the course of the year.
We both seem to agree that Houston is a dangerous team that may make or break its season over the first weekend. Either way you put it, Houston vs. Oklahoma on Sept. 3 will be an exciting warm-up for more fun to come in the 2016 season.