NCAA Football Preview - Houston Cougars
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From The Sports Network By Ralph Lauro, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: The 2003 season was outstanding for Houston, as it finished 7-6 overall and an even 4-4 in C-USA. The team has come a long way from the '01 season when it failed to win a single game. The Cougars even made their first bowl appearance in seven years last year. Although they dropped a 54-48 decision in three overtimes to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, they certainly has a successful campaign. Last year, Houston began a stellar 5-1 which was its best start in 15 years. The team, however, was only able to capture victories in two of its remaining seven contests. Still, the Cougars were among the top offensive teams in the nation and return a healthy core of players that should have them primed for even more success this season. Houston will try to accomplish something it hasn't done in 15 years, post back-to-back winning seasons. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: The Cougars were simply electric on offense last season and this year could be more of the same. Houston ranked 12th in the nation in total offense (458.3 ypg) and rushing offense (215.5 ypg) last season. The squad also boasted the 16th-best scoring offense (34.5 ppg), which produced seven games of 40+ points. The Cougars were one of only six teams last year to have a 1,000-yard rusher (Anthony Evans), 1,000-yard receiver (Brandon Middleton) and 3,000-yard passer (Kevin Kolb), and two of the three will return in 2004. Kolb, the reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year, was simply amazing in his first season of collegiate football. He broke every UH freshman passing mark en route to being the top-rated rookie quarterback in the nation. He threw 25 touchdowns against just six interceptions, while rushing for seven scores. One of Kolb's favorite receivers will also be returning this season in Vincent Marshall. He led the team with 60 receptions for 812 yards and seven touchdowns. Chad McCullar, who grabbed 35 balls for 403 yards last season, will line up opposite Marshall. As for the tailback spot, the Cougars are loaded this season. Anthony Evans returns as the starter after leading the team with 1,149 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last year. Jackie Battle, a 250-pound bruising back with speed, will also get some carries after finishing with 560 rushing yards and a team-best 5.5 yards per carry in '03. LSU transfer Ryan Gilbert gives Houston even more depth in the backfield. The biggest question mark for the Cougars on this side of the ball is the offensive line. Only two starters return from a year ago which may cause a problem in the team's complicated offense. DEFENSE: If the Cougars are to become one of the top teams in C-USA they will have to improve greatly on defense. The unit ranked 101st in total offense (440.4 ypg) and 103rd in rushing defense (208.7 ypg) last season. Houston also permitted 36.0 ppg, including allowing more than 50 points in a game four times. This year's club returns six starters and several other players with experience. Defensive end Joe Clay returns as the team's top starter up front. Clay was sensational last season, leading the Cougars in sacks (seven) and ranking second in TFLs (16). Filling up the middle of the line will be returning starter Kade Lane, who has started 25 consecutive games. He is a hard-nosed player who can clog running lanes. Heading the linebackers is Lance Everson, who is one of the top defenders in C-USA. Everson racked up a team- best 126 tackles (18 TFLs) in '03 and is expected to be even better this season. Opposite of Everson is the speedy Bryant Brown, who posted 88 tackles and three sacks a year ago. As for the secondary, it is led by free safety Will Gulley, who finished second on the team in tackles (104) and also finished with four interceptions. He is joined by returning starting corners Stanford Routt and Will Gaston. Routt is not only one of the fastest players in C-USA, but in the nation as well. He is an All-American sprinter for the UH track team who has good cover skills. SPECIAL TEAMS: Dustin Bell will handle the punting and placekicking duties this year for Houston. Bell has one of the strongest legs in the nation, as 54.4 percent of his kickoffs landed in the end zone last year. He has also made 26-of-33 field goals in his two years with the Cougars. Ricky Wilson heads the return team with his average of 26.1 yards per kickoff from last season. OUTLOOK: Although the Cougars had some success last year and are returning some key skill players, they may have trouble putting together a winning season. The team plays a tough schedule which includes games against Oklahoma and Miami. While Houston may be one of the most exciting teams to watch, its lack of defense will surely come back to haunt it in a defense-oriented conference.