Houston 2022 Season in Review: Cougars fall short of lofty expectations

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2022 record: 8-5 (-4 wins from 2021) 

Texas Power Poll ranking: 8 of 12 


The season began with a bang in a triple-overtime win over UTSA on the road in Week 1. The Cougars scored 17 in the fourth quarter points to storm back and eventually outlast a Roadrunner squad that went on to win Conference USA. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw for three touchdowns and led the team in rushing, scoring the game winning two-point conversion with his legs. Tune was a bright spot throughout the year as the senior threw for 4,074 yards and 40 touchdowns with a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio. 

His favorite target – slot receiver Nathaniel “Tank” Dell – was another bright spot for an underachieving Houston squad. Dell caught 109 passes for 1,398 yards and 17 touchdowns. That was 68 more receptions, 797 more yards, and 10 more touchdowns than the second-most at any of those categories for Houston. Freshman wide receiver Matthew Golden began to look like a future No. 1 target late in the year, ending the season second on the team with 10 scores.

Patrick Paul and Cam’Ron Johnson were first-team All-AAC players up front. D’Anthony Jones was a first-team All-AAC selection along the defensive line after recording 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. 


Houston went 0-2 against future Big 12 opponents, losing in double-overtime to Texas Tech on the road in Week 2 and by 18 points at home the next week to Kansas. That’s not a great sign for a Houston squad heading to the Big 12 in 2023. The main culprit in both defeats was a poor defense that allowed over 40 points per game in those two contests. 

The Third Ward Defense didn’t live up to its image in 2022. The Cougars were 105th in the FBS in total defense after allowing 421.6 yards per game. They were even in worse in scoring defense, allowing 32.2 points per game to check in at 112th out of 131 schools in the country. Third down was a major issue with Houston allowing opponents to convert over 43 percent of the time. And the unit wasn’t much better in the red zone – allowing touchdowns in nearly 65 percent of those situations. 


Expectations determine perception. Houston was riding high after a 12-win 2021 that included an 11-game winning streak to close out the regular season and a victory over Auburn in a bowl game. The Cougars were picked to win the AAC and possibly follow Cincinnati into the College Football Playoff on the way out the door to the Big 12. Instead, an eight-win season felt hallow and Holgorsen was under fire for large chunks of the season. 

The low point of the season took place on Nov. 5 in Dallas when the Cougars allowed 77 points in a loss to SMU. The Mustangs scored 56 points in the first half alone. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw nine touchdowns on 28 completions. Tune tossed seven touchdowns in a loss.  


Quarterback: A- 
Running back: C+ 
Wide receiver/tight end: B+  
Offensive line: 
Defensive line: C+ 
Linebacker: C+ 
Cornerback: C-
Safety: B-


Holgorsen likely doesn’t get very long to figure out life in the Big 12. He was hired to get the Cougars in position to compete in a conference he coached in back at West Virginia. The 2021 season looked like the start of a magic ride into the new-look conference. Instead, it feels like a mirage after a disappointing 2022. Holgorsen is 27-20 in four years at Houston. The Cougars fired Major Applewhite after two years and a 15-10 record. 


Houston brought in Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith to replace Tune at quarterback. The gamble better pay off. The good news is that Smith has plenty of Big 12 experience and was a gamer during his time in Lubbock. The offense was solid for most of 2022, so the biggest jump forward needs to be defensively because it is hard to envision the Cougars scoring at the same clip in the Big 12 with Smith as it did in the AAC with Tune. The return of running back Alton McCaskill should be a big boost. 

Transition is never easy. The week-in, week-out competition only gets harder for Houston. The USFs and Temples of the world are replaced with Oklahoma State and Baylor. Kansas, the usual doormat of the Big 12, improved enough to beat Houston last year by three possessions. Texas and Oklahoma are likely still in the conference, and the Longhorns will play in Houston if that remains true. TCU is fresh off a College Football Playoff berth. Texas Tech is on the rise. Kansas State returns a lot. Newcomers such as Cinci and UCF look closer to instant success. The point is, even reaching .500 might be a difficult task. 

An eight-win season feels like a success in 2023 given the potential schedule and amount of talent the Cougars must replace offensively. 

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