A pair of Lone Star State rivals will collide when the Texas State Bobcats and Houston Cougars meet at Robertson Stadium for the 2012 season opener. Texas State opens up its first season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference after spending 2011 as an FCS independent to complete the transition to the FBS level. The Bobcats' stay in the evaporating WAC will last just this season as they are contracted to transition to the Sun Belt Conference in 2013. Head coach Dennis Franchione managed to coach the Bobcats' to a 6-6 record in his first season with the program in 2011. Franchione previously held the coveted head coaching positions at TCU, Alabama, and Texas A before landing at Texas State for the second time.
Following the departures of head coach Kevin Sumlin and superstar QB Chase Keenum from the Cougars' record setting 2011 team, Houston has a new look in 2012 with first-year head coach Tony Levine stepping into the spotlight. Houston won a nation's best 13 games in 2011, but a loss to Southern Miss in the C-USA Championship game prevented it from a BCS Bowl game invitation. Levine had been an assistant with the program since 2008 and picked up his first-ever win as a head coach while serving as the Cougars' interim coach in their TicketCity Bowl victory over Penn State. Prior to UH, Levine was an assistant for the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Franchione had a tightly contested QB battle in the preseason between Shaun Rutherford and Tyler Arndt. Rutherford saw more action last season, and completed 58.3 percent of his passes for an average of 111.5 ypg with 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Arndt had a completion rate of 51.4 percent and threw three touchdown passes and interceptions. Isaiah Battle is Texas State's top returning wideout with 27 catches for 368 yards and five touchdowns. Battle was also a threat in the return game and set a school record with a 93-yard return last season. Both Tim Hawkins and Brandon Smith are expected to emerge as contributors in the passing game as well. Texas State's defense gave up an alarming amount of total yards to FCS opponents last season. Against FBS opponents, the Bobcats surrendered 505 total yards and 50 points in their season opener versus Texas Tech before giving up 618 total yards and 45 points to Wyoming the next week. Franchione noted in the preseason that the lack of a pass rusher was a concern. The Bobcats are hoping Thomas Evans and Jacob Woten can provide a boost in that department.
Houston may never reach the statistical heights it did in 2011 with national leading averages of 599.1 total yards and 49.3 points per game, but it should maintain a steady offensive flow with David Piland under center. The sophomore QB stepped in and started as a true freshman when Keenum went down with an injury and managed to lead the C-USA (league games) in passing yards. Piland will have to be patient as Houston graduated 63 percent of its receptions. The leading returning wideout is Ronnie Williams (138 yards, 16 catches, one TD). Senior WR Chance Blackmon along with sophomore Mark Roberts should see big-time roles in the passing attack also. The Cougars' passing may be overshadowed by its rushing game this season as junior RB Charles Sims is poised for a big season. Sims is the leader among active running backs in the NCAA with 121 career receptions. The halfback rushed for 821 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry last season.
Jamie Bryant decided to make the switch to a 4-3 alignment after the team appeared helpless against the run on more than one occasion in 2011. Bryant has high expectations in senior DT Dominic Miller and sophomore DE Eric Braswell after they both submitted strong performances last season. Phillip Steward and Derrick Matthews both return after starting last season as linebackers, but they were not as celebrated in 2011 as the departed duo of Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw. Steward led all linebackers in the NCAA with six interceptions last season and Matthews had two separate 12-tackle performances. The secondary ranked third nationally in interceptions as they were constantly challenged by opponents that were desperate to narrow the margin on the scoreboard. Senior CB D.J. Hayden was named the 2011 Conference USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year after recording 66 tackles, 11 pass breakups, five forced fumbles, and two interceptions. Texas State is not going to get a warm welcome from Houston into the FBS. Levine and his Cougars are unlikely to look ahead a game with the C-USA Championship game loss fresh in their memory.