Coach:Kevin Sumlin (18-8, third season) | Staff Last season: 10-4, 6-2 (T-1st in C-USA West); lost to East Carolina in C-USA championship game, lost to Air Force in Armed Forces Bowl
Returning starters: Offense-7. Defense-7 (one has moved to offense). Specialists-2. | Depth Chart Final 2009 Rivals.com ranking: 35th | Last season's Rivals 120
Kevin Sumlin has made Houston one of the nation's hottest programs, which is why he has become one of the nation's hottest coaching commodities.
After a 2009 season that saw the Cougars beat Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State en route to a 10-4 record, Sumlin was wooed by the likes of Kansas and Cincinnati, but he opted to remain in Houston in hopes of pushing the Cougars over the top. In each of the past two seasons, Sumlin has guided Houston to C-USA title contention but has come up short each time.
Though coordinator Dana Holgorsen left for the same post at Oklahoma State, the offense again should be potent. And Sumlin thinks a revamped defensive staff will make this his best Houston team yet. The schedule again has challenges, as the Cougars play at UCLA and Texas Tech and play host to Mississippi State. But with challenges come opportunities.
THE SCHEME: This is a pass-happy spread attack, with the quarterback lined up in the shotgun and four receivers spread all over the place. Houston also runs well, though. There is a new coordinator; wide receiver coach Jason Phillips takes over. Quarterback coach Kliff Kingsbury also will be involved in the play-calling.
STAR POWER: All of the key cogs on offense are back, led by senior QB Case Keenum, who is a legit Heisman contender. He was 492-of-700 passing (70.3 percent) for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns last season. Don't be shocked if Keenum eclipses the 6,000-yard mark this fall.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: One of the guard spots will be manned by either redshirt freshman Ty Cloud or senior Isaiah Thompson. Either one would count as a newcomer because Thompson is a former starting defensive tackle who hasn't played on the offensive line since high school.
STRONGEST AREA: Keenum will work with a deep corps of receivers, led by reigning C-USA Newcomer of the Year James Cleveland (a team-high 104 catches for 1,214 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Tyron Carrier (91 catches for 1,029 yards and seven TDs). The Cougars were only the third team in NCAA history to have a 5,000-yard passer and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line could be an issue. Two starters are gone, including T Jarve Dean, who was dismissed from the team in March. And we already mentioned the newcomers at one of the guard spots. RB Charles Sims, who ran for 698 yards and nine TDs last season, is ineligible this season, and that could further harm the running game.
THE SCHEME: The Cougars are moving to a 3-4 look from a 4-3 in an effort to get tougher -- much tougher -- against the run. Houston was bad on defense last season, standing out even in defense-poor Conference USA. The new coordinator is Brian Stewart, who was a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles last season after serving for two seasons as the Dallas Cowboys' coordinator.
STAR POWER: Junior LB Marcus McGraw has been productive, with 259 tackles the past two seasons. Again, though, he's not playing on a lockdown unit, and the tackle total is so high because he has not been surrounded by many (any?) other high-caliber players.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior LB Sammy Brown was signed out of junior college to provide an immediate impact. He enrolled early, and his performance in spring practice would lead observers to think he can make a positive impact this fall. He adds a physical presence to a defense sorely lacking in that trait.
STRONGEST AREA: There isn't one. Houston ranked 111th in the nation (451.3 ypg) in total defense and 95th in scoring defense (30.1 ppg) last season. The Cougars allowed at least 35 points in seven games. The rushing defense was especially rancid, ranking last in C-USA and 115th in the nation (226.6 ypg). Foes scored 37 rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Houston gave up an average of 45 points in its four losses.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Stopping the run -- or at least doing a better job against the run -- is the highest priority. The Cougars gave up at least three rushing TDs in eight games last fall, and every opponent rushed for at least 151 yards. The Cougars gave up 18 rushing TDs in their four losses.
This area looks strong. Carrier, a junior, should be one of the top return men in the nation. He's the FBS active leader in kickoff returns for touchdowns with five; four of them came in 2009. Backup CB Devin Mays also returned a kickoff for a touchdown. K Matt Hogan nailed all 12 of his field-goal attempts last season, including a 51-yarder as time expired to beat Tulsa. P Jordan Mannisto has a strong leg and a knack for placement. Kickoff coverage was good, but punt coverage was awful last season.
Three of the four non-conference opponents are from Big Six conferences, meaning Houston would have the requisite "big wins" needed for the BCS if it somehow were to go undefeated. Two of the three are on the road, with games at UCLA and at Texas Tech. Houston won at Mississippi State last fall, and the Bulldogs travel to Houston this season. Four of the first five games are at home, which obviously is a plus, but five of the last seven games are on the road.. There are two tough league road games -- SMU and Southern Miss. Key league games against UTEP, UCF and Tulsa are at home, though.
The offense again should be one of the nation's best after finishing No. 1 in total offense (563.4 ypg), passing offense (433.7 ypg) and scoring offense (42.2 ppg) last season. But it's the defense that ultimately will make or break Houston. If the unit can go from bad to even mediocre, Houston can win the league and maybe even challenge for a BCS berth. But that might be too much to ask.