Houston was irrelevant in 2020. Can Dana Holgorsen change that soon?

Maria Lysaker

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With National Signing Day in the rearview mirror, we are evaluating the state of each Texas FBS program. Next up is Houston, which just finished its second season with head coach Dana Holgorsen. 

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Houston Cougars

2020 Record: 3-5, 3-3 AAC

Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen (7-13 in two seasons)

Returning Production Ranking (O/D): 64 / 80

Key Returners: QB Clayton Tune (2.048 yards, 59.7%, 15 TDs, 10 INTs), CB Marcus Jones (24 tackles, 19.9 yards per punt return), TE Christian Trahan (22 catches, 294 yards, 3 TDs)

Key Losses: WR Marquez Stevenson, DL Payton Turner, LB Grant Stuard

Key Additions: DL Latrell Bankston (Iowa State), DB Alex Hogan (Texas Tech), WR KeSean Carter (Texas Tech)

Final 2020 Ranking: 8

Way-Too-Early 2021 Ranking: 7

What went wrong: Houston was irrelevant

When Houston fired head coach Major Applewhite, one of the most common reasons cited was that the program seemed to be losing momentum after the successful years of the Tom Herman era. Two years into the Dana Holgorsen era, you’d be hard pressed to find much different. 

The Cougars went through as forgettable a regular season as you will ever find. Houston beat Tulane 49-31 in a come-from-behind win to start the season. From there, they beat two horrid teams in South Florida and Navy, and were blasted by BYU, UCF and Cincinnati by at least three scores. Then there was the two-touchdown loss to Todd Graham’s Hawaii. 

When the season ended, Houston had a losing record and no signature win. It finished middle of the AAC in both scoring and yardage offense and defense. Outside of the departing Grant Stuard leading the conference in tackles per game, very few position players stood out. The only real exception was Marcus Jones, who earned All-America nods at both returner and cornerback. Otherwise, Houston mostly drifted through 2020. 

Granted, Houston had to deal with an astonishing series of cancellations to start the year, including winnable games against Rice and North Texas. Houston also dodged likely losses against SMU, Baylor and Tulsa. 

Houston was not a bad team last season. They were better than their forgettable 3-5 record. The issue? Teams don’t usually put up banners for “looking better than 3-5.” 

What went right: The transfer strategy is paying dividends

Holgorsen turned to the transfer market almost as soon as he arrived at Houston, and several of those players have turned into standouts. 

Troy transfer Marcus Jones rated as a second-best cornerback in America by Pro Football Focus and also excelled as a returner. Texas transfer Kyle Porter led the team in rushing. Leading receiver Nathaniel Dell came from Independence Community College. Jovanni Stewart (West Virginia) and Deontay Anderson (Ole Miss) excelled at safety. 

Even when pulling transfers from high-profile Power Five schools, there’s no guarantee that they will successfully integrate into a roster. However, Holgorsen’s staff has done a great job of quickly identifying talent and fitting it in their systems. The more success Holgorsen has on that front, the quicker Houston will be able to turn over the roster. 

Thankfully, another round of star transfers is on the way. Defensive linemen Latrell Bankston and Tre Williams were perhaps the best at their position in the portal. Texas Tech transfers Alex Hogan and KeSean Carter were both starters that the Red Raiders wanted to keep. Running back Ta’Zhawn Henry will be eligible. 

The AAC is leaving Houston in the dust

Things have changed quite a bit since Houston was sitting at the top of the conference. Six teams have played in the conference championship game more recently. Four have won a conference title. And more concerning, the gap only seems to be growing. 

Memphis has elevated itself from doormat to conference contender. Cincinnati has become a national power. UCF is still a tough out and will continue to be one with Gus Malzahn in the building. 

Plus, SMU has gone from the bottom to the top with Sonny Dykes. Tulane has three consecutive bowl appearances for the first time ever. Even lowly Tulsa won the division last year. Even for a team as consistently good as Houston, there aren’t many surefire wins. 

Houston is one of the most fascinating, engaged and prestigious institutions in the state of Texas. By every metric, Houston should be perhaps the best Group of Five job in America – not in a dogfight for third-best in Texas alone. 

The keys are in Doug Belk’s hands

Holgorsen has been aggressive in finding young, Black assistant coaches and giving them major opportunities. He gave control of the offense to Marquel Blackwell and Brandon Jones when he came to Houston. At West Virginia, he took a chance on a grad assistant named Doug Belk to coach cornerbacks. 

After Belk became a candidate for the cornerbacks coach role at Georgia, Holgorsen doubled down and handed Belk control of the defense to keep him on board. It’s a risk, but a well-deserved one after Belk helped coach Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams to being two of the highest-rated players on the defense. 

Belk will have to put his stamp on a defense that started to find its groove in forcing turnovers and creating pressure, but struggled to keep teams out of the end zone. It will be interesting to see what his philosophy will be after learning under Nick Saban, Tony Gibson and Joe Cauthen. 

Now what? 

When Houston fired head coach Major Applewhite, the quote about firing coaches for going 8-5 shone louder than ever. Now, prized coach Dana Holgorsen has failed to reach eight wins through his first two seasons in Houston. 

Granted, there’s an incredible amount of context, perhaps as much as any team in the sport over the past few years. The 2019 season featured a wave of opt-outs, and 2020 featured cancellations mixed with a global pandemic. Holgorsen’s staff has not had a fair shake to this point. 

That said, a 7-13 still is what it is. With multiple future NFL players and All-Texas College nods leaving the program, there’s no guarantee that there’s a major turnaround around the corner either.

The good news is that Holgorsen has identified talent well, even if the recruiting services aren’t as optimistic. Early-enrollees DB Mark Wilson and QB Maddox Kopp are players we were high on in-state. Multiple Holgorsen recruits will play a bigger role as they become upperclassmen.

Houston should be a must-watch program in this sport, but was anything but last season. The university hired Dana Holgorsen to be right in the midst of the conference championship race and national conversation. It doesn’t necessarily need to happen by 2021 – but our patience is wearing thin. ???????

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