The Houston Cougars were picked to finish third in the AAC preseason poll but are a strong contender to make a push for the conference crown in 2014. They have a dynamic pas catching combination with receiver Deontay Greenberry arguably being the best receiver in the conference and quarterback John O’Korn being a rising star under center. But for the Cougars to really have a shot at the AAC title this season, they will need their defense to rise up. Can linebacker Derrick Mathews lead them to the top this fall?
Mathews has been a three-year star for Houston already and should take his game to the next level in 2014. He has posted three-straight 100-plus tackle seasons, posting double-digit tackles for loss each year as well. Last year, he finished with 116 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss and a personal-best seven sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, four pass breakups, and an interception returned for a touchdown. He did a little bit of everything for the Cougars’ D in 2013 and he’ll be asked to do a little bit more during his senior season.
Despite Mathews’ excellent playmaking, Houston ranked No. 9 in the AAC in total defense last season, giving up 415.8 yards per game. Their major problem was the incredible number of plays the team faced (1034), almost 100 more than anyone else in the conference. They employed a bend-don’t-break philosophy, ranking No. 4 in the conference in scoring defense (21.8 points per game) and No. 1 in forced turnovers (43). While this helped them win seven of their first eight games, it came back to hurt them when the offense struggled late in the year and they lost four of their last five.
This season, Houston needs to crank up the pressure and minimize the yardage they give up to opposing offenses. That will allow their potentially prolific offense a little margin for error and give the Cougars the inside track to an AAC title. Can Derrick Mathews be the difference-maker that Houston needs in 2014?