During the Art Briles coaching regime (between 2003-07) and the Kevin Sumlin regime (2008-11) the Houston Cougars were known for their high-flying offense. The offense would fizzle out during the stagnant Tony Levine era (2012-14).
Art Briles was an innovative coach for years as the head coach of Stephenville High School in Stephenville, Texas. Briles helped change the high school football landscape where he would move on to Texas Tech where he would then learn many of coach Mike Leach’s air raid schemes. Briles brought his knowledge to the University of Houston in 2003 and turned around the fortune of the Coogs who had been down in the dumps since the collapse of the SWC. The Cougars under the Briles era were led by quarterback Kevin Kolb and were able to win many games, including the 2006 Conference USA Championship.
After Briles took over the Baylor Bears program following the 2007 season, the Cougars hired Oklahoma Sooner offensive coordinator Kevin Sumlin to keep the momentum growing. Sumlin made some excellent hires and the Cougars won even more under Sumlin, but fell short of winning the conference twice.
Looking at the numbers
Houston – Total Offense Ranking Nationally
Under the Sumlin regime the Cougars had once of the best offenses in the country, twice being ranked #1 in total offense. The defense was frequently the teams’ Achilles heel:
Houston – Total Defense Ranking Nationally
That lack of a defense is a big reason why the Cougars never won the conference under Sumlin. Still, having one of the best offenses won the Coogs lots of games and led to many sellouts of the old Robertson Stadium.
Collapse of the offense
Sumlin was hired after the 2011 season to take over the Texas A&M Aggies and the Coogs promoted special teams coordinator Tony Levine. Instead of hiring an offensive coordinator with Big 12 experience (like Sumlin did with Dana Holgorsen) or promote from within (like Sumlin did with Kliff Kingsbury), Coach Levine hired Mike Nesbitt who was the offensive coordinator at FCS Stephen F. Austin for only one year and the coordinator at Division II West Texas A&M for only one year before that.
Levine and Nesbitt’s first game showed how overmatched the two were as the Coogs were whooped by Texas State 30-13, forcing Nesbitt’s resignation after only one game. Nesbitt was quickly replaced by the equally overmatched Travis Bush.
While the Cougars offense finished a respectable 15th in total offense, the defense dropped to an embarrassing 118th. The team finished 5-7 leading to Coach Levine hiring Doug Meacham from Oklahoma State to run the offense and longtime college and NFL assistant David Gibbs to run the defense.
In the 2013 season the offense dropped to 55th overall in total offense but improved to 80th in total defense. The Cougars had a decent showing with a 8-5 record. After the season coach Meacham would be hired away to coach TCU and Levine again promoted Travis Bush to take over the Coogs offense.
In 2014 the Coogs offense finished 58th but the defense improved to a very impressive 20th in the country. The Coogs finished 7-5 but lost two games to inferior teams: UTSA and Tulane.
In the offseason coach Levine was fired, coach Gibbs was hired to take over Texas Tech’s defense, and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired to take over the Coogs head coaching duties.
The total offense and total defense numbers are important but don’t tell the full picture. Coach Levine was an assistant under Kevin Sumlin during the high powered 2008-11 years and likely saw how close the Coogs were to contention but lacked an elite defense and power run game to win key games late in the season necessary to win the conference title. The Sumlin teams looked outgunned late in the season against hard hitting, blue collar defensive teams like East Carolina and Southern Miss. Levine likely took this to heart when building out his teams at Houston.
If Levine in fact thought this way, he was correct in his analysis but failed in execution. He made two good coordinator hires (Meacham and Gibbs) but failed to replace Meacham with a quality coordinator for 2014. The team was outclassed by UTSA and Tulane, which is why even though the Coogs won seven games last year it was still considered by many to be a failure. Win those two games and it’s very likely Levine would still be Houston’s coach.
A new era on Cullen Blvd.
Tom Herman was hired from Ohio State to be the Coogs new head coach. Here’s now Herman’s offensive units fared up in Columbus:
2014: 9th (national champs)
Very good! Coach Herman hired former Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite for the same job with Houston. A look at Applewhite’s offenses at UT:
Not amazing, but coach Applewhite combined with coach Herman should help toughen up the Cougars offensively and teach them how to win games in November and December.
The Cougars hired Todd Orlando away from Utah State to coordinate the Coogs’ defense. Let’s look at his numbers:
Very good! It looks like the Herman+Applewhite combination on offense combined with Orlando running the defense should bring some further balance to the Cougars and hopefully improve enough to win more games in the next few years.