by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The Houston Cougars have long been one of the movable pieces in the college athletics puzzle. For years the commuter school dreamed of big-time sports while it toiled in the Missouri Valley in the 1950s, then as an independent. During the ‘60s, the athletics program really blossomed as UH became an alternative in the region to the more strait-laced Southwest Conference, with the Cougs also breaking the color line before other SWC schools. The more-established colleges in state, notably Texas and Texas A&M, looked warily upon UH as it began to steal headlines in the ‘60s, first with its basketball team led by Elvin Hayes that made it into consecutive Final Fours in 1967 & ‘68, and with a burgeoning football powerhouse coached by Bill Yeoman, who introduced the explosive Veer T offense to college football. By the end of the ‘60s the Cougs were a bowl-caliber gridiron power in their own right, and the SWC could no longer ignore UH. The Cougs agreed to join the SWC in 1971, although the move would not take effect until 1976, when the Cougs would officially leave the independent ranks to compete in the league.

The more-established schools in the region still never took much liking to the Cougs, especially how they came in and showed little deference to their Southwest elders; instead, UH took joy in damning the regional hubris by humiliating the old order. Yeoman’s initial SWC entry in 1976, led by QB Danny Davis, TE Don Bass, & DT Wilson Whitley, won the conference in its first try, whipping A&M and Texas (the latter by a 30-0 count) en route to the sacred Cotton Bowl, where UH beat an undefeated Jerry Claiborne Maryland team, 30-21. To prove that was no fluke, UH went back to the Cotton Bowl two times in the next three years, victimized by Joe Montana’s heroics in a wild 35-34 Notre Dame win in the ‘79 Cotton, but then delivering its own last-second magic behind backup QB Terry Elston to nip Nebraska at the wire in the 1980 renewal.

A period of decline in the mid ‘80s preceded Yeoman’s retirement and set the stage for a revival under Jack Pardee and then John Jenkins, who shamelessly ran up scores when presented the opportunities as the Cougs’ high tech, run-and-shoot offense briefly became the rage of college football behind QBs Andre Ware (who won the Heisman Trophy in ‘89) and David Klingler. Severe NCAA penalties marred this wild era of UH football and preceded a trip to the depths in the mid ‘90s before the dissolution of the SWC. After enduring many humiliations vs. the Cougs throughout the years, the highest-profile conference members had no desire to ask Houston along to join them in with the rest of the Big 8 in a newly-named Big XII for 1996. With few available landing spots, the Cougs surfaced in Conference USA, where they have remained in the 15 years since.

But for how much longer? UH could be on the move again, reportedly a target of the Mountain West Conference, and perhaps even being considered by the Big XII, itself down to ten teams after Nebraska and Colorado recently left the fold. A few wild rumors even have the Big East showing interest, perhaps as a regional partner for TCU, recently recruited by the league to begin play next season. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, the Cougs enter 2011 looking at something of a re-do for a 2010 campaign that went pear-shaped early due to a variety of strange developments. Regarded as a potential BCS buster before the season, and with record-setting sr. QB Case Keenum getting peripheral Heisman mention, the Cougs were expected to dominate CUSA, but instead the season began to unravel in a mid-September 31-13 loss at UCLA. The Bruins defense proceeded to do the sort of number on Houston QBs that we had not seen in a sporting event since 1979, when Texas Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer (in the days long before he became a White Sox broadcaster) broke the hand of 2B Frank White and the jaw of OF Al Cowens in the same game; as for UCLA, it KO’d both Keenum with a torn ACL (suffered while trying to make a tackle after a turnover, much as Joe Namath once did while trying to run down Lions DB Mike Lucci in a 1971 preseason game) and backup Cotton Turner with a broken collarbone, both to be lost for the season.

Goodbye, BCS hopes. Goodbye, Keenum’s Heisman hopes. And, in the end, it was goodbye, bowl hopes, although the depleted Cougs had to lose their last four games to fall to 5-7 and miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Strangely, those dark clouds of 2010 ended up having something of a silver lining. Keenum requested and was granted a 6th-year of eligibility in January by the NCAA. After taking it easy while still rehabbing his knee in spring work, he’s expected to be good to go by the time the return match vs. UCLA rolls around in the opener on September 3. Meanwhile, HC Kevin Sumlin, regarded as a very hot commodity entering last season, saw potential suitors (rightly or wrongly) shy away after 2010's disappointment that was also marred by a collapse of the Cougar defense, which finished 103rd overall (432 ypg) and 96th in scoring (32 ppg) in a depressing debut season for highly-touted d.c. Brian Stewart, who had recently held the same position on Wade Phillips’ Dallas Cowboys staff and had authorized sweeping schematic changes to the stop unit upon his arrival.

Thus, UH gets a chance at a do-over, hopefully with healthy Keenum, who has 13,586 career passing yards and within sight of breaking the all-time NCAA passing yardage mark held by Hawaii’s Timmy Chang (17,072 YP). Keenum, who passed for 5671 yards and 44 TDs in 2009, again has a four wideout-formation from which to operate, with smurf-like seniors Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards the most accomplished targets, each owning 1000-yard receiving seasons in their careers and having combined for 1580 receiving yards and 14 TDP a year ago. Most of those stats in 2010 were accumulated on passes from then-frosh QB David Piland, who filled in admirably for Keenum (and Turner) by throwing for 24 TD passes. So, if nothing else, Sumlin has plenty of available (and experienced) depth at QB, although that logjam caused another highly-touted 2010 frosh, Terrance Broadway, to transfer to UL-Lafayette in the offseason. Piland, originally expected to redshirt (along with Broadway) last year, could yet opt for that designation this season, depending upon the progress Keenum makes when returning to the field for fall workouts.

Houston’s spread, which recorded a nation’s best 563 ypg in 2009, is not completely imbalanced, with punishing sr. RB Bryce Beall a deluxe “downhill” battering ram who has scored 32 TDs in his career. Three new starters must be plugged in across the OL, with a pair of RS frosh (G Bryce Redman & T Rowdy Harper) likely to win starting berths on the right side. Sumlin, however, was reportedly pleased with the progress he witnessed in spring drills. “We’ve got 300-pound guys, as big and strong as we’ve ever had,” said the coach. “They’re just not as experienced, but that’s okay. That’s why we recruited them.”

But even if the offense provides the voltage it did with Keenum in 2009, the “D” needs to make great strides before the Cougs can be taken more seriously on a national basis. That’s especially true of the run defense, which didn’t make much headway a year ago under d.c. Stewart’s newly-installed 3-4 looks; the Cougs allowed 209 ypg to rank an awful 114th nationally vs. the rush, hardly any better than when getting gouged to the tune of 232 ypg and 5.2 ypc in ‘09. Stewart’s job is thus squarely on the line, and hopefully new assistants Carlton Hall (new DL coach via Harvard) and Jamie Bryant (former Vanderbilt d.c. and new LB coach) can help with advancing some of the schemes that proved inadequate in 2010 when UH also allowed 40 ppg over its last four games, all defeats. Uncovering some impact performers up front will be key; spring work indicated that RS frosh DE Eric Braswell could emerge as that defensive line playmaker the Cougs need. The strength of the platoon, such as it is, rests with punishing LBs Sammy Brown, who had a CUSA-best 20 stops for loss in 2010, and Marcus McGraw, who has led the Cougs in tackles the last two seasons. But while the LB corps looks to be a positive, the same, at least entering fall camp, can’t be said about a rebuilt 2ndary breaking in three new starters, an extra concern in a league such as CUSA with so many progressive passing attacks. Sumlin was even forced to make a rare S.O.S. call to the juco ranks for immediate help at the CB spots, where JC transfers Chevy Bennett and D.J. Hayden are being counted upon to step into starting roles right off the bat.

Summary...After disappearing from the national radar a year ago following Keenum’s injury, the Cougs enter 2011 in more of a stealth-like mode. The schedule provides a chance at some immediate redemption in the opener vs. UCLA, and UH isn’t slated to face a team that notched a winning record in 2010 (other than lower-division Georgia State) until the final game of the regular season at Tulsa. Obviously, a healthy Keenum gives the Cougs a puncher’s chance in every outing, but to avoid this season becoming a football version of the heavyweight slugout between Ron Lyle and local product George Foreman back in 1976, the “D” is going to have to make significant advances from a year ago, especially against the run. In a best-case scenario, Keenum stays healthy, UH avenges the loss to UCLA, emerges as the team to beat in CUSA, and easily gets back into the bowl mix. But any longshot BCS buster hopes figure to be diffused somewhere along the way by that suspect defense.

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