After four years of mediocrity, the 2021 football season is a chance for the University of Houston to change the narrative. After two seasons of Major Applewhite’s cluelessness and another two of upheaval under Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars need to pile up the wins to jump from being an ‘also-ran’ to relevance.
In the last four years, the Cougars are just 20-23 against FBS teams, including fourteen losses by 14 or more points. The Massey Strength of Schedule rating says UH’s schedule has averaged 75th best over the last four years, making that poor record look even worse. But with another forgiving schedule and an improving roster, the 2021 Coogs should be in a position to string together wins and build momentum. It’s time: Houston has not won back-to-back games since October 2018.
Despite some publications suggesting he is on the hot seat, Dana Holgorsen’s hold on the program is firm with three years remaining on his contract. But through bad decisions, poor play, unexpected consequences, off-field troubles, the weirdest on-again, off-again 2020 schedule in FBS, and sheer bad luck, Dana’s program has often times looked disorganized and directionless.
All of that can be overcome with a strong 2021; if the program’s narrative shifts, so will Dana’s. It’s fair to say that few coaches nationally will benefit from a 9- or 10-win season more.
Holgorsen’s public comments suggest that his expectations are high. Since AAC Media Day, Dana has continually said that if Clayton Tune is not improved then the blame falls on him.
“Clayton’s got a lot of snaps under his belt,” Holgorsen said about Tune in early August. “I’m not doing a good job coaching if he’s not better in year three.”
Even while Dana deflects some of the pressure, year 3 as the starter puts Clayton Tune squarely in the spotlight. Tune and the offense will be expected to produce in a hurry: UH was 51st in scoring in Dana’s first season and 53rd last year. To change the narrative about the UH program, that has to improve.
Tune has to change his personal narrative as well. He’s just 5-12 in 17 career starts over three seasons but has yet to have a full season as the starter. Tune has shown flashes of brilliance while struggling with consistency; he’s had big games but hasn’t taken the proverbial next step. Tasked with Tune’s development, Shannon Dawson returns for his second season as offensive coordinator. He’ll be just the second OC to serve two years since Kliff Kingsbury did it going into 2011 (Major Applewhite is the other, in 2015-16).
Dawson will need much-improved line play in front of #4. The OL has been a sore point: Tune has been sacked 53 times in his 17 starts and last year’s offense ranked 83rd in rushing. Grad transfer Kody Russey, likely to be the starting center, will set the table for a reshuffled line. A former teammate of Russey’s at Louisiana Tech described him to me as a commanding presence on the field and just as reliable off of it.
On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Doug Belk has a stack of returning talent. After the unceremonious firing of then-DC Joe Cauthen, the expectations on Belk are higher than they might ordinarily be. Cauthen turned a disastrous 2018 defense into a respectable one in his two seasons. Can Belk build upon that?
At the tail end of last season, the defense played as well as they had since 2016. UH gave up just 310 yards to Memphis and 267 to Hawaii, both among the fewest yards given up in the last decade:
Fewest Yards Given Up (2011-2020)
UCF (2014): 228
SDSU (2016): 255
UTSA (2014): 264
Hawaii (2020): 267
Memphis (2020): 310
Oddly, UH lost all five of those games.
Belk’s first season as a coordinator will be one of the main storylines for a program that has dealt with a lot of change in the last few years. Holgorsen put a lot of faith in the rising star but Belk has plenty of talent, and full autonomy, to run an attacking defense.
Even with muted expectations from most fans and a lot of uncertainty, this squad will need to win 8+ games to show material progress. The schedule is there to take the next step: combined, UH’s opponents went 41-51 in 2020 with five teams winning three or fewer games. After four years of disappointment, the Cougars are in a great position to finally change the narrative.
Over the next 10 days, GoCoogs.com will preview the 2021 season with analysis on both sides of the ball and will look at the best position groups, breakout players, and the schedule.