New team. New year. Yeah, it's corny, but corny mantras often work with college football players. University of Houston coach Art Briles will use this one on his squad a couple thousand times, hoping his team:
"We're on what I call a maintenance improvement plan -- we're maintaining while improving," said Briles, who is in his second year with the Cougars.
It would be difficult to maintain the rate of improvement the Cougars have enjoyed of late. UH went from 0-11 in 2001, to 5-7 in '02 (the last year under Dana Dimel), to 7-6 in '03, with a season-ending loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, the Cougs' first bowl appearance in seven years. With 12 returning starters, Briles has a team that could be a factor in the C-USA race, but only if it overcomes a brutal schedule.
OffenseThe Cougars' self-described "high-octane" offense may feature dozens of formations and styles -- from wishbone to five wides -- but according to Briles, the key to its success isn't trickery. It's efficiency. Kevin Kolb threw only six interceptions in 360 pass attempts, and he didn't have a two-interception game until the bowl contest against Hawaii. That performance as a true freshman raises expectations, but the steady Kolb has run this offense since middle school and is almost as comfortable in it as the coaches are teaching it.
Tailback Anthony Evans, a shifty-but-strong 215-pounder, will be counted on to repeat his 1,149-yard season. Similarly, 250-pound tugboat of a fullback Jackie Battle looks to build on a 560-yard campaign.
UH's wide-open attack has quick-strike capabilities, with receivers expected to make yards after catches. Junior Vincent Marshall (60 receptions for 812 yards and seven TDs), Chad McCullar and Leonard Gibson will be the lead trio, but at least six pass catchers will be in the mix in the Cougars' high-substitution pattern.
The line could be a problem, as there will be three new starters and a crop of inexperienced reserves.
DefenseDefensive coordinator Ron Harris said his group was very erratic in '03 -- from game-to-game, series-to-series and play-to-play.
The Cougars lose only two starters on the line, but that's from a unit that was spanked to the tune of 36 points and 440 yards per game. Junior college transfer D.J. Johnson should start at tackle and shore up the middle, and incoming freshmen will get plenty of early looks at linebacker in fall workouts.
How quickly linebacker Lance Everson returns to form after losing 30 pounds due to a broken jaw suffered in the spring could be vital to the defense's improvement.
There is some speed and talent in the secondary, particularly free safety Will Gulley, but opponents averaged 5.1 yards per carry against an inexperienced and undersized front seven.
SpecialistsDustin Bell likely will be one of the top kickers in the country. He has a strong kickoff leg (54.4 percent of kicks into the end zone) and has a 78.8 percent accuracy rate (26-of-33) on field goals in his two years. He could be called upon to punt as well.
UH's return teams are very good, with Ricky Wilson, who averaged 26.1 yards on kickoffs as a true freshman, leading the way.
Final AnalysisHouston's 5-1 start last year was its best in 13 years, but a repeat of that is unlikely. As much as the Cougars will try to downplay their schedule, it is the type of slate that can send a team into a tailspin.
The Cougars play only one of their first seven games on their home field (though two others are in Houston). The non-conference schedule includes games against Oklahoma and Miami, and the early C-USA slate has visits to Memphis, Southern Miss and TCU -- three teams the Cougars lost to last season.
Kolb will need another excellent year and he should have it, but he must remain injury-free, as the Cougars have no experienced backup.
Defensively, UH has to be tougher and more physical. The group was pushed around on a regular basis, especially at the end of games -- it gave up 132 fourth-quarter points on the season.