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NCAA Football Preview - Houston Cougars

By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: You may have missed it, but for the first half of last season, Houston was neck and neck with Louisville and UCF in the American Athletic Conference title chase. The Cougars, despite starting a freshman quarterback, won seven of their first eight games, with the lone loss being a 47-46 heartbreaker against BYU.

The wheels finally came off after the sizzling start, with the Cougars suffering setbacks to UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati in three straight games. However, the average margin of victory in those defeats was just 6.3 points.

Houston took out the frustration of those losses on SMU with a 34-0 triumph in the regular season finale, before dropping a 41-24 decision to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Despite the bowl loss, it was a nice step forward in Tony Levine's second season at the helm, as the Cougars improved to 8-5 after going 5-7 in his first year.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: When multiple concussions ended David Piland's career early last season, Houston appreared to be headed for a rough year. Thankfully freshman quarterback John O'Korn stepped in and went above and beyond the call of duty to keep Houston in contention.

O'Korn went on to throw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns, to only 10 interceptions, after taking over as the starter in the third game of the season. Although he played well, O'Korn did have some trouble in bigger games. He completed just 46.2 percent of his combined pass attempts against UCF, Louisville, Cincinnati and Vanderbilt, and he was also picked off 4 times. Still, cutting his teeth as a rookie means O'Korn's prospects for this season could not be better.

"I think he's got a tremendously high ceiling, if you will," Levine said of O'Korn. "The sky's the limit for what he can be, not only on the field, but off the field as well."

With O'Korn at the helm, the Cougars' customary offensive production remained fairly potent. Houston was third in the AAC in scoring offense (33.2 ppg), while ranking among the top-30 teams nationally in passing offense (280.5 ypg).

Deontay Greenberry deserves a lot of credit for the offense's success, and O'Korn's as well. The 6-foot-3 wideout hauled in 82 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was selected to the All-American Athletic Conference First Team. He is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. Daniel Spencer is one of the better second receivers in the league, after logging 52 receptions for 768 yards last season.

The Cougars used a platoon running backs last season with great success. Both Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson are back this season after the two combined to rush for 1,175 yards and 12 touchdowns on 242 carries in the 2013-14 campaign.

Protecting O'Korn and blocking for Farrow and Jackson will fall to an offensive line that returns center Bryce Redman and guard Rowdy Harper.

DEFENSE: The best way to describe Houston's defense last year is opportunistic. The Cougars led the country in forced turnovers (43) and turnover margin (+25). Despite the large number of takeaways, they were still next-to-last in total defense (415.8 ypg) among all AAC teams. Obviously improvements will need to be made in case fortune is not as kind.

"I think our defense became very, very confident over the course of last season," Levine said of his group. "It's something with nine returning starters on paper, as much experience as we have defensively, we're going to aim to do again this season."

Levine is right. Having so many starters back should certainly help, especially with ball-hawking safety Adrian McDonald being one of them. McDonald brought in 6 interceptions, which tied for the seventh-most in the country, while contributing 99 tackles as well. Fellow safety Trevon Stewart (109 tackles, 4 INTs) is just as important a piece in the secondary, which is less experienced at cornerback.

The linebacking corps also has its fair share of returning talent. Efrem Oliphant (134 tackles, 13 TFL) and Derrick Mathews (116 tackles, 7.0 sacks) are hard-hitting defenders, who excel in bringing down ball-carriers. Steven Taylor (89 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) should not be ignored either. With such a starting trio, the Cougars have one of the most productive groups at the position in the country.

As far as the defensive line goes, defensive tackle Joey Mbu (29 tackles) and defensive end Trevor Harris (49 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will be tasked with leading in the trenches and producing at a high level.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Both the offense and defense appear to be set for big things in 2014, but the special teams will need some work. Kyle Bullard made all six of his field goal attempts last season and Sam Martin, Logan Piper and Dylan Seibert are the punters on the roster.

The return game should remain in solid, if not exceptional hands, with Demarcus Ayers likely to keep the job. Ayers only averaged 4.3 yards per punt return last season, but he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and averaged 27.6 yards per return in such situations.

OUTLOOK: Houston should get off to a fast start yet again this season, with its first two games against Texas-San Antonio and Grambling State. Then the Cougars will visit BYU with revenge in mind. The AAC schedule kicks in from there, with the team facing a real test in hosting UCF in the league opener. If it can survive the early going, UH should be set up nicely for a tough end to the campaign when it plays at SMU and at Cincinnati in back-to-back weeks.

The schedule certainly has its challenges, but with so much proven talent on the roster it is tough to imagine Houston regressing this season. O'Korn has already proven he has what it takes to be the program's next great quarterback and Greenberry, Spencer, Farrow and Jackson give him an embarrassment of riches to work with. Add in the frightening group at linebacker and at safety and the Cougars have a very formidable squad. Now they just have to find ways to win big games against top competition.

08/22 13:01:31 ET

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