Are the Houston Cougars Contenders or Pretenders?

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On paper, the Houston Cougars appear to be poised to make another giant leap this year in the American Athletic Conference. There is a ton of returning talent to a team that went 8-5 last year with a freshman quarterback, and four of those losses were by one possession, including a 1-point loss to BYU. Things should be looking bright, and Head Coach Tony Levine appears to be in prime position to continue building on the foundation his former boss, Kevin Sumlin, laid. But there are some major red flags.

The Cougars stumbled to a 3-5 finish to the season after a 5-0 start and struggled significantly. Quarterback John O’Korn looked like he regressed during the second half of the season rather than progress, and there’s a reason for that. Houston’s competition was a step higher, playing Central Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

They also had a significant advantage in the turnover margin. Yes, turnovers are part of the game and they represent

Nov 29, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Cougars head coach Tony Levine stands on the sideline before a game against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

opportunistic teams that take care of the football, but that wasn’t completely true in Houston. With 18 giveaways, the Cougars weren’t in the top 30 in terms of fewest turnovers, but they were first with an incredible 43 takeaways, giving them a plus 25 margin, which is the highest margin in recent years. Some of that, a lot of that, has to do with luck, and it’ll be hard to repeat that this year.

However, there is some good news, most notably the fact that Houston won all but one game by two possessions, hinting that the turnover margin wasn’t as important to the win total as you might think. Also, with so much talent back, they could steal a few of those close losses that they had last year. There’s a pretty wide range of what Houston can do, but it’s still up in the air if the team is in for a rude awakening after a lucky season, or if it is a talented and experienced team ready to take the next step after a very good season last year.

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