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Big 12 Newcomer Preview: Houston

We are officially seven weeks till college football is back! What else is back? Dana Holgerson is back in the Big 12 for the first time since 2018. After the four new teams were announced, one of the key things fans looked forward to was seeing how Holgerson and the Houston Cougars do in the newly formed conference. After a decent 2022 season (8-5), the Cougars had their way in the transfer portal, bringing in 20 transfers and 17 recruits in the 2023 class. Among the 20 includes former Sooners David Ugwoegbu and Latrell McCutchin along with West Virginia’s 2022 starting running back Tony Mathis and Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith. 

Houston: 

Hometown:

Houston, TX 

Stadium: 

TDECU Stadium. Capacity: 40,000

Head Coach:

After spending 2011-2018 at West Virginia, Dana Holgorsen was announced as the Cougars head coach in 2019. 

Overall Record:

456-366-15

Record vs OU (Football): 

Despite Houston stunning #3 Oklahoma in 2016, Oklahoma leads the series 3-1 with their last meeting being in 2019. 

Playoff Appearances: 

0x

Conference Championships: 

11

2022 Record:

8-5

Last 5 Years:

35-25 

2023 Key Players:

Offense: Dononvan Smith (QB), Mikal Harrison-Pilot (WR), Matthew Golden (WR), Jack Freeman (OL). 

Defense: Nelson Ceaser (DL), Adari Haulcy (DB), Malik Robinson Sr.  (LB), Alex Hogan (DB). 

Last 3 Recruiting Classes:

2023: 56th 2022: 53rd 2021:79th 

Final Thoughts:

With all of the hype surrounding Dana Holgerson’s return to the Big 12, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he has a very good team as well. Led by former Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith, this team will be able to score at a high rate and be a dangerous road game for visitors. In 2022, Houston was 8th in the nation in passing yards and 24th in total yards-per-game. Despite the offensive success though, Houston struggled defensively. Don’t believe me? On November 5th, they scored 63 points and lost. Yes, you read that right. They lost 63-77 to SMU as former Sooners quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw for 9 touchdowns on the inexperienced Houston secondary. With that being said, despite Houston not being on OU’s schedule in 2023, this will be a team everyone is watching as they are poised to cause many upsets in their first season in the Big 12 due to a very high-powered offense.

Caleb’s Thoughts

Just for a few more looks at Houston from a few different angles.

Post Spring SP+ Ranking – 53rd (11th in Big 12)
2023 Preseason KFord Rating – 61st (14th in Big 12)

2022 Offense: 

25th ranked Offense in YPG (455.8)

21st ranked Offense in YPP (6.57)
T-16th ranked Offense in Scoring (36.1)

78th ranked Offense in Rush YPG (141.8)
T-101st ranked in turnover margin (-5)

2022 Defense:

105th ranked Defense in YPG allowed (421.8)

102nd ranked Defense in YPP allowed (5.91)

112th ranked Defense in Scoring (32.15)

57th ranked Defense in Rush YPG allowed (143.2)

122nd ranked Defense in Pass YPG allowed (278.6)

A familiar face will lead Houston from the AAC into the Big 12. Former West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgerson will be entering his 5th season as the Cougars Head Coach (27-20), after having spent 17 of the prior 20 seasons as either a position coach, coordinator or Head Coach within the Big 12. Holgerson’s Houston teams have been a continuation of the offense dominant-pass first units that he lead during his time at West Virginia.

The 2022 Houston offense ranked 25th overall in the country, while being top 16 in scoring. But gone is QB Clayton Tune (#7 in that nation in passing), WR Nathaniel Dell (#1 in receiving yards & TD’s), as well as offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson who left for Miami. Replacing Dawson as OC and potential play caller will be Houston QB Coach Mike Burchett. Burchett has been an assistant under Holgerson since the 2015 season at West Virginia. And with Holgerson having over 20 years of play calling under his belt it’s unlikely there are any changes made to the scheme and structure of the Houston offense.

Replacing Tune at QB will be Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith. Smith had an up and down 3 years at Tech, showing flashes of arm talent, but struggling with turnovers (19:10 TD:INT ratio). With Holgerson potentially calling plays it’s unlikely that Houston falls flat on offense, but replacing the success of the 2022 unit looks to be unlikely as they move into the Big 12.

The Houston 2023 defense should be an interesting case study. Lead by DC Doug Belk, the Cougars saw that massive improvements that unit made in Belk’s first season as the primary play caller come crashing down in 2022. Belk took the Cougars from 119th in scoring defense in ’20 to 19th in scoring defense in ’21 & 6th in scoring defense. Belk’s name began emerging as a candidate for top DC jobs across college football…as well as at the NFL level. The 2022 Cougar defense crashed back to earth as they ranked 105th in total defense & 112th in scoring defense. Houston gave up 30+ points 7 times in 13 games.

Another factor making the defensive hill Houston looks to climb in 2022 that much steeper is the loss of personnel they absorbed from their 2022 group. Gone are 5 of their top 6 defenders from a season ago, with 4 of them being departures within their front 6. How that front 6 holds up for Houston will likely go a long way in determining just how competitive the Cougar defense is in year 1 in the Big 12.

Ultimately I think Houston should see success in the Big 12 given their recruiting base. But out of the gate it’s difficult to imagine the Cougars having a successful inaugural season. Over the course of Holgorsen’s first 4 years at Houston he is 1-5 against Power 5 competition, with 4 of those 5 losses coming against 2022 members of the Big 12 (Texas Tech x2, Oklahoma, Kansas). 

Given Holgorsen’s offensive expertise I wouldn’t put it past the Cougars to land a big upset over someone like Kansas State due to Houston’s ability to score points. But I struggle to see a scenario where 2022 is not a difficult season for the Cougars. 

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