The Kevin Sumlin cachet scrubbed off by a 5-7 finish in Tony Levine's first year, Houston wasn't targeted as an emerging team in 2013. The American Athletic Conference rated the Cougars as its sixth-best team in its first preseason ranking of the league's existence.
That's fine by Levine, who has reveled in the luxury of winning quietly.
Yep, Houston is 6-1. Don't tell anybody.
"Yeah I was happy about that," said Levine of Houston bubbling under the surface. "Coming off a 5-7 season, I'm not sure what people expected of us."
Cleaning up past mistakes and igniting a stagnate defense, Houston has three conference wins and nearly knocked off BYU despite losing last year's starting quarterback (David Piland to career-ending concussions) and starting left tackle (Ralph Oragwu, ACL) early in the season.
True freshman John O'Korn has skillfully replaced Piland with 19 touchdowns, four interceptions and 1,858 yards, leading an offense that torched Rutgers 49-14 and traded blows with BYU in a 47-46.
Houston moved on from defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant after the Cougars ranked 118th in total defense. David Gibbs' new defense has a country-leading 27 takeaways (17 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries), which speaks to Levine's broader point.
Rank near or at the top in turnover margin, and Houston will return to prominence. In fact, Levine gave a PowerPoint presentation to his team in the offseason highlighting the top 20 and the last 20 in 2012 turnover margin rankings. The top 20 included Alabama, Florida, Oregon and Kansas State -- Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the BCS rankings that year.
Of the 22 teams (including ties) at the bottom, 19 had a losing record.
Houston has gone from 85th to 1st in turnover margin, helping the Cougars regain the form that Sumlin established with double-digit-win seasons in 2009 and 2011. Offense wasn't the problem last year with 32.4 points and 480 yards per game. The defense is catching up.
"They've bought into that," Levine said.
Levine knew O'Korn was special but wasn't sure how an 18-year-old would respond. No complaints there.
Despite Houston's stellar start, facing consecutive ranked conference foes UCF (Nov. 9) and Louisville (Nov. 16) will show how far the Cougars have come.
In coaching form, Levine won't look past his next game against USF. But he'll acknowledge this: Houston has a chance to strengthen the long-term outlook for the expansion-ravaged American.
"Our brand and our style of play was going to be a great fit for the league," Levine said. "We're uptempo on offense and we're aggressive defensively. We don't have the size yet on defense but our speed matches up well."