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NCAA Football American Athletic ConferenceHouston Cougars

Rant Sports College Football Rankings: No. 43 Houston Cougars

Troy Taormina - USA Today Sports

Troy Taormina – USA Today Sports

After a freshman season that saw him outperform some of the great quarterbacks in Houston Cougars football history, sophomore John O’Korn looks to keep the Cougars in the conversation as contenders for the American Athletic Conference championship in 2014 despite the loss of two starers in the spring to ACL injuries.

OFFENSE:

After stepping in for the injured David Piland, O’Korn showed that he was not the typical freshman by passing for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Cougars ended up finishing the season averaging 33.2ppg and passing for 280.5ypg which placed them in the upper half of the offensive efficiency in the nation — and this was with a scaled back offense. Head coach Tony Levine looks to put more responsibility in the hands of the now experienced O’Korn, so Cougars fans should expect to see his stats greatly improve.

One player that will go a long way is junior receiver Deontay Greenberry. The former five-star recruit had a breakout season in 2013 with 82 receptions for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns. Greenberry goes into 2014 considered the best receiver in the conference, but he isn’t the only talent at the position for the Cougars. Joining him will be senior Daniel Spencer (52 catches, 768 yards), sophomore DeMarcus Ayers (11 catches 130 yards) and former USC Trojan senior Markeith Ambles (17 catches, 252 yards), who is looking to end his collegiate career on a high note.

While the Houston offense will be pass oriented, the run game will provide balance with the return of juniors Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson –  the two combined to rush for 1,242 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The offensive line is led by senior guard Rowdy Harper and center Bryce Redman, and will look to junior Alex Cooper to fill in for Zach Johnson, who was lost for the season after tearing his ACL during spring ball, at left tackle.

DEFENSE:

While the offense received all the attention, the defense was no slouch itself as it led the nation in turnovers (43), but they will have to deal with the loss of starting defensive end senior Eric Braswell, another victim to a torn ACL in spring ball. The Cougars return the three other starters on the defensive line — Junior defensive tackle Tomme Mark and seniors defensive tackle Joey Mbu and defensive end Trevor Harris – and should have enough depth to overcome the loss of Braswell.

The  strength of the Cougars defense will be the linebacker position where they return all three starters including All-AAC conference candidates Efrem Oliphant and Derrick Mathews. Oliphant led the team in tackles (134) and tackles for loss (13) and Matthews, the team’s sack leader (7), is the most experienced having started 39 consecutive games at the position.

The defensive backfield is led by another All-AAC candidate in junior safety Trevon Stewart. Stewart was third in tackles (109) and had four interceptions on the season. Junior Adrian McDonald joins him at the other safety postion and led the team in interceptions with six. There will be two new starters at cornerbacks for the season, senior Turon Walker and junior William Jackson, and they will have to rely on the leadership at the safety position until they get acclimated to the new responsibilities.

SCHEDULE:

The non-conference schedule has them opening the season against UTSA, and while this in-state rivalry game with the Roadrunners will be tough, the Cougars should win this game. The Cougars also host Grambling University and Tennessee Tech at home while traveling to Provo, UT to face BYU. Houston should head into AAC conference play with a 4-0 record even after facing the tough Taysom Hill and the BYU Cougars offense.

The Cougars will find out if they have a champion pedigree early as they host UCF to kick-off conference play. They also host Temple, Tulane and Tulsa at the new on-campus TDECU stadium. The Cougars could benefit from facing UCF early in conference play as they will be breaking in a new quarterback and should finish their home schedule 3-1 at worst.

They travel to Memphis, South Florida, SMU and end the season against one of the other conference contenders in Cincinnati. The game against the Bearcats could decide who wins the conference and if O’Korn has matured like coach Levine is expecting, that game could decide who wins the AAC championship.