It is scary just how much Houston’s success on the football field in the last several years mirrors Cincinnati’s. During the same span that the Bearcats were piling up multiple ten-win seasons, winning four Big East championships, and going to two BCS bowl games, the Cougars were accomplishing similar feats. Since 2005 Houston has won at least ten games in a season three times, going 13-1 in 2011. They won the Western division of Conference-USA four times and a conference title once. The Bearcats should have been playing these guys on a regular basis years ago*.
*By “regular basis”, I mean the Cougars should have been invited to the Big East and played conference games against UC since 2005. For shame, John Marinatto!
Now in the AAC, Houston is rolling with newish coach Tony Levine who was promoted to head coach season after Kevin Sumlin moved on to Texas A&M on December 20, 2011. At 7-3 the Cougars are having another impressive season. The passing attack is as dangerous as ever and the defense actually isn’t half bad. Houston’s three losses this year have all been by a touchdown or less, so even the games they drop the Cougs are competitive. Once again, this will be another tough test for the Bearcats on the road.
For the better part of the last decade the Cougars were known for their offense and 2013 is no different. Houston is second in the AAC in scoring offense (35.6 points per game), fourth in rushing offense (151 yards per game), and fourth in passing offense (292 yards per game). This despite the Cougars replacing junior quarterback David Piland (#8) with freshman John O’Korn (#5) a couple of games into the season. Clearly the system down there allows for little fluctuation in success despite having to overcome adversity.
O’Korn is young but operates the offense well. He has a live arm, throwing for almost 2,500 yards this year and 23 touchdowns to just six interceptions this season. But the freshman is not without help. O’Korn has a plethora of weapons around him be it in the running game with backs Ryan Jackson (#22) and Kenneth Farrow (#35) or the receiving game with Deontay Greenberry (#3) and Daniel Spencer (#4). Everywhere you look it seems Houston has a playmaker capable of breaking into the open and going the distance.
The problem with Houston under Kevin Sumlin was that they would get into shootouts on a weekly basis. The Cougars couldn’t stop anybody as both UH and their opponents routinely witnessed the score climb above 100 combined points during games. This imbalance put an inordinate amount of pressure on the Houston offense. Not anymore it seems. No, since the coaching change it appears that UH has finally restored balance to their team. The Cougars are holding opposing offenses to just three touchdowns per game. That doesn’t seem impressive but in the context of several years of horrible defenses, allowing 21 points per game is really something to cheer about.
Perhaps the biggest difference this season is the rate at which Houston is forcing turnovers. The Cougars boast the best turnover margin in the country at +2.2. They’ve forced opponents to throw 18 interceptions (T-3rd) and have stripped the football 15 times (T-2nd) in 2013. Houston has a very active linebacking corps led by juniors Efrem Oliphant (#50) and Derrick Mathews (#49) along with a young but talented secondary. The defense as a whole has a nose for the football and try to force turnovers every chance they get. The Bearcats better be wary.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND PREDICTION
At 8-2 and coming off a sheer obliteration of Rutgers last weekend, Cincinnati is playing its best football of the season. During the same span the Cougars have lost two close games in a row. But, like I mentioned, Houston is just a few bounces falling their way from being undefeated in 2013. Forget all of the other teams up until this point, the Cougars are UC’s toughest team opponent thus far this season. As much as it pains me to say this, I think Cincinnati loses a close one on the road but refocuses to take down Louisville on December 5th in front of a national audience to reclaim the Keg of Nails for good.