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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Saturday, August 27, 2016 at 11:32 AM

CAN HOUSTON COUGARS WIN 10 GAMES AGAIN?

The Houston Cougars were one of the feel-good stories in college football last season. They started 10-0 and finished 13-1, capping it off with a Peach Bowl win over Florida State. Greg Ward, a terrific dual-threat quarterback is back in the fold and there's every reason to expect 2016 to bring more winning to Houston. But just how much and is there any money to be made?

Let's begin by eliminating two propositions. As nice as the Houston story might be and as attractive as 50-1 to win a national championship looks, the odds of the Cougars even making the Playoff are not that good. Even if they upset Oklahoma on September 3, the rest of the schedule is non-Power 5 and the fact that Houston was never even in the discussion for the Playoff last year - even at 10-0 - shows how much the deck is stacked against teams from non-power conferences.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can also eliminate Houston as a (+110) proposition to win a second straight American Athletic Conference title. Not that the Cougars are a bad straight-up pick to do so, but that's an awfully short price for a league race that won't be settled until a conference championship game in December. Anyone who believes in the Coogs that firmly can make more money just betting them week-to-week.

It's total wins that present some opportunity. The Over/Under is 9.5 and while it is shaded a bit - you have to pay (-135) to take the Over while getting (+115) on the under, the chances of the Cougars winning at least 10 games again are pretty good.

This is a team that excelled on both sides of the ball a year ago, ranking in the Top 20 nationally on offense and defense. The primary concern is a young offensive line, with four new starters. This is where the style of play in so many midmajor conferences makes a big difference - the wide-open games and spread offenses place much more of an emphasis on the quarterback, rather than physical dominance. And that leads us to Ward.

Ward was one of only two quarterbacks to rush for over 1,000 yards and also exceed 2,000 yards passing. The other was a guy by the name of DeShaun Watson at Clemson, who's a popular pick to win the Heisman Trophy and go first in the NFL draft next spring. Ward's in some good company.

On defense, Houston is led by linebacker Steven Taylor, who recorded 10 sacks last year and is the best defensive player in this league. There are problems in the secondary and the Cougars are going to play some high-scoring games. But in games like this, when you have the best playmaker on both offense and defense, your chances are pretty good.

For the sake of this discussion let's assume Houston loses to Oklahoma - this doesn't mean we're taking the Sooners (-10) in the season opener or even that we think OU will win straight up. That decision will be made closer to game time. It does mean that in a futures discussion on Over/Unders, we would want to be confident the Cougars could get to 10 wins without the Sooner game.

After the opener, the schedule is just not that imposing. The toughest road trips are Cincinnati and Navy, both of whom have substantial rebuilding ahead. Another road game is Memphis and we're waiting to see how the coaching change will impact the Tigers. The remainder of the non-conference schedule is Lamar and Texas State. Houston can certainly aim for running the table after the Oklahoma game and if you bet Over 9.5 that still leaves a loss to give, and that doesn't include potential chances in conference championship game or bowl matchup.

How good Houston will be in the national picture is up for discussion. How big of a favorite they should be in the American is a fair topic for debate. But regardless, they look like a good bet to win ten football games in 2016.

 

 

WILL THE TEXANS REPEAT IN THE AFC SOUTH?

The Houston Texans are coming off a year where they went 9-7 and won a weak AFC South title. They made some major moves in the offseason, including an upgrade at quarterback. Yet Las Vegas is not bullish on the Texans - you can get a decent 12-5 price on Houston just to win the division again and the Over/Under on wins is 8.5, requiring that they only match their record of a year ago. Are the oddsmakers onto something?

Some of the skepticism shown in the pricing has less to do with anything in Houston and more about the presumed healthy return of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, which has made the Colts the AFC South favorite. But it also shows doubts about how good the Texans really are, especially with J.J. Watt's health a question mark.

Watt, easily the NFL's most dominant defensive player, had back surgery this summer and it's up in the air if he'll be ready for the season opener on September 11. Against this admittedly significant concern, let's also look at how much Houston has going for them.

It starts on defense. When you rank seventh in the NFL in points allowed, you're more than just a one-man band. The Texans have one of the league's best secondaries, with Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson both being outstanding. Second-year corner Kevin Johnson made solid strides as a rookie and if he continues on that path, the pass coverage is going to be great.

Another young player making improvement is Jadeveon Clowney. The first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft had all the earmarks of a bust his rookie year. But Clowney started to come on in Year 2. How well he plays with Watt either out or limited remains to be seen, but Clowney has given the Texans another way to pressure the quarterback.

Houston can also be expected to run the football effectively. They made a big upgrade in the backfield when they signed Miami's Lamar Miller. The Texans also made sure they signed some blockers to lead the way, getting guard Jeff Allen away from Kansas City and drafting Notre Dame center Nick Martin. How quickly Martin develops and the new line meshes remains to be seen, but it seems a certainty that the line will, at minimum be better than last year.

We can therefore say this team will run the ball and play defense, but what about the lifeblood of NFL offenses, the passing game? There's no serious problems with the receivers, at least as long as DeAndre Hopkins stays healthy. That brings us to the quarterback position and the offseason signing of Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler inspires a wide range of opinions across the league after his stint stepping in for Peyton Manning last year in Denver when Manning was out with a foot injury. Optimists feel Osweiler might have made Denver's ultimate run to the Super Bowl a little easier. Pessimists think had the Broncos not gone back to Peyton in Week 17 they would have blown the #1 playoff seed and lost in the playoffs.

We won't get into that debate here, because for the sake of this discussion it's important only to note that for as varied as opinion on Osweiler is, everybody thinks he's better than Brian Hoyer. And that's who had the controls for much of last season in Houston, including the season's biggest games.

If you want to talk about Houston's prospects as a 60-1 longshot to win the Super Bowl, then the Osweiler debate becomes relevant. But if you just want to talk about the Texans matching last year's win total, Brock is more than good enough.

Of course that presumes Watt gets himself healthy. Not necessarily by Week 1, but that he start playing again September and get into a good rhythm by October. If you assume that, it's not that Houston becomes decisively better than Indianapolis in the AFC South, but the Texans at least are even with the Colts - and the math says that makes 12-5 odds to win the division a value bet.

 

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