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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Houston

A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Houston... What's Changed: Kevin Kolb has graduated, mercifully, a prolific quarterback serving as inspiration for a generation of young Coogs, a lucky few of them having grown up to become teammate to their hero. Through sheer longevity, he managed to exceed the staggering passing heights of the Ware-Klingler era, in more efficient fashion, and with less expectations will make a better pro than either of those notorious busts. He was also the key figure by far in the school's first outright conference championship since 1978, and so defined Art Briles' dizzying scheme, it makes no sense to contemplate Houston repeating without him.

Briles is one of these coaches with a rep for developing quarterbacks, though, having reportedly sent five of his high school proteges to D-I schools before joining Mike Leach's first staff in Lubbock and then grooming Kolb, so Blake Joseph and/or Case Keenum is not to be dismissed for his inexperience. Which is, of course, total - since 2003, all but 15 pass attempts around here have come from Kolb, eight of them garbage time gimmes by Joseph against Tulane and Grambling last September.

Even on Google, "Blake Joseph" can't escape Kevin Kolb.
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What's the Same: The most frustrating element of defending Briles' spread is that, much as you want to have four guys sitting in each flat to jump bubble screens, UH does too good a job keeping defenses honest on the interior to get too aggressive flowing to the outside. Unlike fellow Lone Star spread partisans Texas Tech and Baylor, for example, Houston usually managed to complement Kolb's skills with a better-than-decent running game, one that produced 1,000-yard guys of the consistent, between-the-tackles variety in 2003 and 2005. But never had it been the kind of weapon it suddenly became when sometime-receiver Anthony Alridge moved down alongside 250-pound brickbat Jackie Battle at midseason. The Cougars finished second in C-USA in rushing over the course of the year, but were nigh unstoppable once Alridge was in the mix, averaging 241 yards in the final five regular season games with the new addition going for a ridiculous 11 per carry and scoring eight touchdowns via the very respectful lanes offered by the spread-strained opposition.

Alridge, clearly, is to be handled only with highly-resistent, radiation-proof burn suits, but his influence could also be more limited than UH would like:

• He's listed as a starter, but Alridge is no feature back. He's small (5-9, 170) and may not be able to handle more than a dozen carries in a game - his high last year was 14 against Memphis. That was fine with Battle pounding the tackles, but neither of his top backups has that kind of bulk or, you know, a single career carry. He also had a fumbling problem.

• The majority of Alridge's production was against some awful teams, and dropped dramatically when better defenses from Southern Miss and South Carolina seemed to have his role figured out in the postseason games. The run still succeeded as a chain-moving diversion on both occasions, but with Battle doing more damage against three-man fronts.

• Until the new quarterback proves they should do otherwise, defenses might be more likely to play man coverage, bring resources up to handle the run and force the young passer to make plays. There will be quite a bit less space with fewer safeties concerned with staying over the top.

That said, seniors Donnie Avery and lanky Jeron Harvey are downfield threat enough to force the desired umbrella accommodating Briles' favored underneath pitch-and-catch, if Joseph or Keenum has time and arm to get it to them.

In Less Exciting News...: Very little to say on the defense, which was just so-so. Five of the front seven are back, but it wasn't a very productive unit in terms of stopping the run or pressuring opposing quarterbacks, who in turn threw 21 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. Winning teams also averaged a sturdy 4.7 per carry, not including a 269 romp in the inexplicable loss to UL-Lafayette, the kind of number that can come back to bite a team no longer averaging 33 points on the other side. The graduation of headhunting safety Doug Gulley leaves end Philip Hunt (7.5 sacks as a sophomore) as the only player on this side to remotely fear.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Briles might feel like he needs to say four words instead of two to the quarterbacks, but Keenum showed a propensity for getting the ball downfield, at least, with 44 and 60-yard touchdown passes, to Joseph's more accurate but scoreless performance. Ex-Oklahoma State starter Al Pena, coming off his transfer year, was MIA. Not that it matters in deciding the position in the fall.

Elsewhere, the 40 times coming from the Cougars' junior pro day sound more  than a little fishy. Alridge - "Quick" - self-reported a 4.21 on his second attempt, which makes him, according to one scout, possibly the fastest player of all-time. After scarfing a quarter-pounder!

Houston on YouTube: What I do now, I must do as an act of catharsis, closure and healing.

In December, I wrote this about a specific play in Houston's win over my alma mater in the C-USA championship game two days earlier:

The defensive reaction during Kolb's 46-yard touchdown run on an option in the third quarter - a standard, no-frills high school triple option - will go down as a disgrace to the university and the region, and the wide employment of black and gold/yellow in general. SMQ his own self is driven to the brink of self-flagellation on the sole basis of his mere one-time affiliation to the institution that sponsored such a sinful display of irresponsibility.

Sometimes it helps to revisit such emotions after a period of time has passed. So watch now with an unjaundiced eye the reactions of Southern Miss representatives Brandon Sumrall (6) and LeVance Richmond (15) at the top of the screen as Kolb puts the Cougars in front for perpituity, and draw an unbiased, emotionally distant conclusion:

Serenity now.

See Also: You are there as Cougar fans rush the field in a gracious, courteous fashion that does not at all make me want to hurl dictionaries around my apartment after the championship victory. Can't be upset at a classic double mascot hug ... And not that I'm a critic or anything, but this one hell of a show by the UH modern dance troupe earlier this year.

Best-Case: Oregon is not a good envrionment to break in a new quarterback, and Alabama waits at the start of October, but within the conference, the Cougars are still a good bet to be favored in at least six games going in, and possibly more, again, depending on its adjustment to the new passer. Tulsa is the most likely stumbling block, but the absence of likely East favorite Southern Miss and general parity in C-USA gives UH a rose-colored chance to match last year's conference record and repeat as division champion.

Catch Anthony Alridge? Fools! You'd have to see him first!
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Worst-Case:Likely is an arbitrary term when talking about potential defeats, because East Carolina, Rice, UTEP and SMU all bear the label of  "up-and-comer" and concede nothing. Pessimistically, quarterback struggles could put the Cougars on the wrong end of, say, three of those four, in addition to some bizarre loss (Colorado State, UAB, Marshall) that wouldn't even have to be as bad as last year's collapse against UL-Lafayette, and they could be sitting home at 5-7.

Non-Binding Forecast: C-USA just added a sixth bowl tie-in, which is kind of ludicrous, and Houston should be easily good enough against to earn one of those spots. The odds of repeating as champion without Kolb, though, are too optimistic for my blood; I imagine three league losses, a return to the uneasy vicinity of 7-5 and a consolation trip to whichever fourth-tier bowl is hosting that sort of resume this year. The Papa John's, perhaps, which sounds more delicious than it really is.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

2006 Record
10-4 (8-1 C-USA, Champion)
Past Five Years
31-29 (22-19 C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (7 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
Because of his delayed switch to running back and the Kevin Kolb hype, nobody noticed that Anthony Alridge wound up averaging 10 yards on 95 carries and adding close to 900 more yards on receptions and kick returns. Not a workhorse by any means, but he’s the definition of a home run threat – seven runs over 50 yards – and also knows how to fire up a crowd (left, at city hall). A natural.
Bizarre Tradition
The Cougars’ mandatory hook-fingered Texas hand sign is a confusing three-fingered salute made by holding down the ring finger with the thumb, originally adopted in an effort to reclaim the gesture used by Texas partisans to mock the recently-severed paw of live UH mascot Shasta in 1953. Do not form this gesture with two hands, or one of them will be ritually severed in honor of the fallen cat’s vengeance-bent spirit.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
A very loud siren, as heard in the clip below, was instituted in the late eighties to play after each of many, many touchdowns by the record-setting Cougar "Air Raid," and came to be known as "The Blaze" in honor of David Carl Blazek, a member of the siren-keeping Sigma Chi frat who died in 1991. So, yes, indeed, the university gave him a fuckin’ siren.
March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple