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2023 Thinking Texas Football Excerpt: No More Easy Saturdays For Houston

by:Paul Wadlington08/17/23

This is an excerpt from the best selling 2023 Longhorn Football Prospectus: Thinking Texas Football.

Buy it here.


In 2023, Dana Holgorsen will find that the bowl-enabling automatic wins that used to characterize their AAC life will be in short supply in the Big 12.

Sat, Sep 2vs UTSA
Sat, Sep 9@ Rice
Sat, Sep 16vs TCU
Sat, Sep 23vs Sam Houston
Sat, Sep 30@ Texas Tech
Thu, Oct 12vs West Virginia
Sat, Oct 21vs Texas
Sat, Oct 28@ Kansas State
Sat, Nov 4@ Baylor
Sat, Nov 11vs Cincinnati
Sat, Nov 18vs Oklahoma State
Sat, Nov 25@UCF
Schedule courtesy of ESPN


With the additions of BYU and Houston, the Longhorns now have more cougars on their 2023 slate than a Longview Chili’s happy hour. Houston has long been a major-minor job, one of the more coveted Group of 5 gigs that served to elevate coaching careers – see Art Briles to Baylor, Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M, Tom Herman to Texas – while occasionally sticking high profile losses to Power 5 giants. Houston enthusiasts have long pointed to these upsets as proof that Houston belongs playing big boy football, ignoring the fact that playing a steady diet of Prairie View, Tulsa and Temple makes getting up for one big game a year pretty easy. Had Houston gone to the Big 12 in 2015 or 2021 with their best squads, they would have likely acquitted themselves well, but a program is as much defined by its troughs as it peaks. Right now, Houston is looking more peaked than peaky and in the sort of trough that says feeding time to their opponents. 

Houston Cougar head coach Dana Holgorsen may find happy hour hunting grounds more generous than his inaugural season in the Big 12 as the 2023 Cougars will have to level up considerably without a handful of players who were the heart of the program over the last 2-3 years; specifically an offensive nucleus that made them a Top 25 national offense, the necessary component to overcome a defense that checked in around 90th.

Last year, the Cougars were supposed to win the AAC handily and were firmly listed in every preseason Top 25 poll (several cheeky national writers opined that they were the best team in Texas) but it never came to fruition. Some blame Cougar defensive coordinator Doug Belk’s disappointing defense, others blame key injuries and the fact that Dana Holgorsen’s team was a coin flip every Saturday to look mentally engaged – the Cougars finished 124th in the country in penalty yards – but whatever the explanation, Houston was a low football IQ team that won eight games against a weak schedule despite themselves. Even Las Vegas struggled to understand the underachieving Cougs, who were 4-8 against the spread in the regular season. 

The 2022 Cougars went 8-5 (5-3 in the AAC) against a strength of schedule firmly in the 60s. By contrast, no 2022 Big 12 team had an adjusted schedule strength outside of the Top 25. The shorthand of season record is how college fans discuss and evaluate success, but competition level is everything. By advanced metrics, Houston was the 58th best team in college football, roughly comparable to Troy, SMU and Western Kentucky. The Cougars were consistently inconsistent, getting smashed by Kansas (48-30) and SMU (77-63) by basketball scores; they beat Rice by a touchdown after trailing for a good portion of the game, lost to a Tulane team starting their 3rd string QB (he ended up with three passing touchdowns in that contest) and their bowl victory was a thoroughly unimpressive come-from-behind win over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Holgorsen is 27-20 after four years in Houston, including a 12-2 2021 campaign, but even that is a mirage. That 2021 nationally ranked Houston team was 41st in the country by advanced metrics, in part because they played a pathetic schedule against a slate of teams that went a collective 67-98 and featured only one ranked opponent. Their marquee win was a bowl victory over a 6-6 Auburn team and they recorded wins over juggernauts like 4-8 Rice, 4-7 Grambling, 4-8 Navy, 2-10 Tulane, 2-10 South Florida, 3-9 Temple and 1-11 UConn. Those seven teams combined for a 20-63 record. Outside of that season, the Cougars have been a sub .500 football team overall against weak competition. A more charitable interpretation is that Holgo had a rough start and that Houston has won 20 games in the last two seasons and is clearly on the upswing. Either narrative is pure spin, so let’s deal with the realities of what Houston is in 2023. 

The Cougars lost four players to the NFL draft, including three year starting QB Clayton Tune (who tossed 40 touchdowns in his last season and amassed over 11,000 career passing yards) and their greatest offensive weapon: wideout Tank Dell (1398 yards receiving, 17 touchdowns) who was drafted in the 3rd round. A quality experienced secondary was devastated by the Twin Horsemen of the Cougpocalypse – the draft and the portal – and once standout edge rusher Derek Parrish went down early in the season with injury, the Cougar pass rush was non-existent.

In 2023, the offense is likely to take a small step back against much better competition while the defense doesn’t have many clear indicators of improvement. Like Memphis or Louisville, Houston can gather talent by osmosis, but a moderate rebuild while stepping up the competition level isn’t advisable. The general inconsistency of the program last year also gives one considerable pause. The upside for this team looks like 6-6 while the floor looks something like 4-8, even with a non-conference schedule that includes Sam Houston State, UTSA and SMU. The Cougars will play 8 games in the city of Houston, including their first four of the season and six of their first seven overall. They need to win six of those games in H-Town to go bowling as road trips to Lubbock, Orlando, Manhattan and Waco will likely find them as substantial underdogs. 


Dana Holgorsen is always going to develop a capable passing game. Despite the massive loss of the diminutive Dell at wide receiver, the Cougars will still feature likely star Matthew Golden, up and comer USC transfer Joseph Manjack and steady Samuel Brown while adding two four star freshman receiver recruits in Jonah Wilson and Mikal Harrison-Pilot. Golden (38-584-7 touchdowns) is a screen game menace with long speed and should be their #1 pass catcher. He could easily have 75+ receptions this year. Manjack impressed in the Spring and this season promises a happy ending if he can catch more balls. Samuel Brown rounds out the key returnees and he was a steady contributor last year with 41 catches for 471 yards and 4 touchdowns. In addition to bringing in a great wide receiver recruiting class, Holgo snagged former Wyoming leading pass catcher Joshua Cobbs and Oklahoma State’s Stephon Johnson from the portal. Houston has a quality room and this is a clear team strength. Good depth, talent and a strong diversity of skills are evident. A majority of Big 12 teams would trade their wide receiver room with the Cougars. 

 A smattering of players across the Cougar roster: center Jack Freeman, tackle Patrick Paul, New Mexico transfer safety Adari Houlcy and defensive end Nelson Caesar are all quality players. They will win plenty of individual matchups every Saturday. The problem is that they must be listed individually, because implying that the larger unit they belong to is also good or proven would be misleading. This is the fundamental problem with the Cougars. Their best players will be in NFL camps next year but alongside them they must start athletes who wouldn’t make the two deep at high level FBS schools. 


The portal badly hurt Houston this offseason. The Cougars lost 1st team AAC guard Cam’Ron Johnson to Missouri, starting right tackle Lance Robinson to Louisville, starting safety Mannie “Get thee to a” Nunnery to Florida and star running back Alton McKaskill to Primetime’s Colorado. Four clear starters, three of them among their best players. Houston did some work in the portal to patch their holes, nabbing West Virginia starting running back Tony Mathis, securing Sooner starting linebacker David Ugwoegbu (he will be moved to defensive end, his correct position), and filled out their two deep with a number of good performers from minor conferences – a total crapshoot there – but despite bringing in 20 portal athletes to build out their depth chart, some of those players are there to serve as camp bodies, not frontline talent. 

Since 2022, the Cougars have lost ten offensive linemen and fired their offensive line coach (who was immediately hired by Missouri). Whether each individual player will be missed isn’t really the point. Houston hasn’t been hitting on their big man development and they are taking warm bodies to fill out their depth chart. Star left tackle Patrick Paul, center Jack Freeman and former Longhorn guard Tyler Johnson return with fellow ex-Longhorn Jaylen Garth expected to take over right tackle, but depth is currently so poor that the Cougar staff couldn’t field ten linemen for a spring scrimmage. A couple of key injuries will effectively end their entire season. 

The entire Houston secondary is composed of former transfers, three of them new to the campus this season. New Mexico sophomore safety Adari Hulcy proved to be the best player on the Lobo defense. He had an incredible 24 tackle game against Fresno State and looks to be a legitimate baller. Cornerback Isaiah Hamilton was a good performer at a losing Texas Southern program in the low level SWAC, nickel Latrell McCutchin is on his third school in three years (Oklahoma, USC, Houston) and senior safety Antonio Brooks is a career reserve forced into action by attrition and the portal. The last piece is cornerback Alex Hogan, who played two years at Texas Tech before playing three more at Houston while piecing together 8 starts over his entire career. The Cougars likely have a couple of players here – Hulcy and Hamilton are intriguing – but the balance of the secondary isn’t very good. 

Quarterback was a spring battle between Tech transfer Donovan Smith and Arkansas transfer Lucas Coley. Smith won. Smith would have been Texas Tech’s 3rd string quarterback this year and while he is not without compelling physical traits, he hasn’t evidenced consistent feel for the game and he can be a turnover factory. Texas fans overvalue Smith because he was the man behind center when Tech upset the Horns in Lubbock, but the truth is that his success in that game was aided by a poor defensive approach on key downs. He was benched two weeks later when opposing defensive coordinators didn’t allow him to throw his few favored routes and removing Smith from the lineup is part of why Tech finished the season on a 4 game winning streak. Holgo is a fine a maximizer of quarterbacks and he will improve Smith significantly with the help of a quality group of pass catchers, but it’s a fair bet that the passing game orchestra will be out of Tune.


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The Burnt Orange Bible analyzes every Longhorn opponent, every Big 12 team (there are 18 team write ups in all, including Texas) and features topical essays to grow your knowledge and enjoyment. Great photos from Will Gallagher and recruiting content from Eric Nahlin are the sweeteners.

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