Culture / Sporting Life

UH Football Embraces the Big 12 Disrespect and Doubts — Being the Underdog Suits Dana Holgorsen’s Team Just Fine

Low Expectations Has Turned Into a Big Season For Houston Before

BY // 08.07.23

There is less expected out of the University of Houston football team than even Meg 2. Barbie has more confidence in Ken getting something important done than most college football observers have in Dana Holgorsen’s team being a factor in its first season in the Big 12. Houston got picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams in the Big 12 Media Preseason Poll, ahead of only Cincinnati and West Virginia. And few are rushing to disagree.

There are secret submarines less under the radar than this 2023 UH football team.

Which is more than OK with plenty of Houston’s players. The underdog sleeper role is one that’s served this program well in the past. And it’s one many of the Cougars are embracing.

“I love it,” UH left tackle Patrick Paul tells PaperCity. “I love it honestly. I love having a chip on my shoulder, I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder. And if you don’t have one you can get complacent. We’ve got it made easy. Yes sir.

“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. As a whole team. We’ve got something to prove. To ourselves.”

For Houston’s receiver star-to-be Matthew Golden the doubts about Houston, the downright dismissal of any notion of the Cougars contending in the Big 12 this season, is life as usual. The Houston life.

“Just being the underdogs,” Golden shrugs. “We’ve always been the underdogs. So coming into the Big 12, we’re the underdogs. So we love that.

“It’s just bringing more fire to us. Giving us that spark to go out there and compete and make sure we come out with the win.”

With UH breaking in a new starting quarterback (albeit one with Big 12 winning experience in Texas Tech transfer Donovan Smith), retooling a defense that disappointed last season and moving up in competition, one could argue that the doubts about these Cougars are legit.

But some of the University of Houston players are looking at it as almost like a blessing. After all, Holgorsen and UH certainly found themselves doubted and questioned heading into the 2021 season. The result? The Cougars finished 12-2, advancing to the AAC Championship Game and beating SEC Auburn in a bowl game.

Being more overlooked than a waiter among the celebrity costumes of the Met Gala, isn’t always a bad thing.

“In my opinion, it’s always better to be the underdog,” Houston senior center Jack Freeman tells PaperCity. “It’s kind of the story of what we did in 2021. We were kind of the underdogs and we ended up shocking a lot of people. Making it to the championship.

“Had a good year — 12-2. The next year we thought we were going to do great and ended up being 8-5. Which is what it is.”

The Power of Being Doubted and a Houston Football Reality

Sometimes you just can’t replicate the hunger of being doubted, of feeling like the whole world is expecting you to fail. It is one of the oldest motivators in sports — and still maybe the most reliable. Many elite teams try to pretend like they’re the underdog, do anything to manufacture that fire.

See the Denver Nuggets, which finished with the best record in the Western Conference, employed the most unique superstar in the NBA in Nikola Jokic and still played the Nobody Believes In US card all the way to the NBA Championship. And those Nuggets have plenty of company in using this tactic.

“I don’t think we have any respect on our name. And it’s all for us to go out there and grab it this year. You have to earn respect. It’s not given. We have to go earn it.” — UH receiver Joseph Manjack IV

This year’s University of Houston football team doesn’t have to create anything though. It is not necessary to fake it. The doubt around these Cougars is very real. They’re legitimate underdogs.

Being picked to finish 12th out of 14 speaks for itself.

“At the end of the day, being the underdog is being at the bottom,” Freeman says. “So all you can do is go towards the top. All you can do each and every week is get better each and every week.”

UH Coogvs Kansas FTB_0080
Bringing back the excitement to UH football is part of Dana Holgorsen’s challenge. University of Houston coach Dana Holgorsen knows he’s in the spotlight. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Sometimes it’s easier to start near the bottom. Especially when it’s just in preseason predictions rather than the actual standings. Sometimes being doubted does a football team good. It can help ward off a self-satisfied mindset.

“I feel like we can’t get complacent man,” big play defensive end Nelson Ceaser tells PaperCity. “I feel like coming off that 12-2 season, I feel like we got complacent. We thought we were more than we actually is. And we stopped working the way that we did when we were hungry.

“I say this all the time. We were hungrier the (offseason) before we were 12-2. . .”

Now these Cougars have had another hungry offseason. One where almost everyone outside of the Houston football bubble seems to be doubting them. Or worse, completely disregarding them.

Dana Holgorsen has called this “a new era for Houston football.” It’s an era that starts with few expectations. At least for year one.

“I think we’re big underdogs,” wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV tells PaperCity as a smile spreads across his face. “We’re new. Teams in the Big 12 know we’re coming to the Big 12. They might overlook us. They might under look us. Whatever the case may be.

“I don’t think we have any respect on our name. And it’s all for us to go out there and grab it this year. You have to earn respect. It’s not given. We have to go earn it.”

University of Houston Cougars lost to the Kansas Jayhawks in NCAA college football, Saturday at TDECU Stadium
University of Houston receiver Joseph Manjack IV brings a lot of passion. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This is the University of Houston program’s current reality. No one thinks much of their chances in 2023. The expectation is that the Cougars will be roadkill for the Big 12’s more experienced, battle-tested powerhouse programs. Which is just fine as far as Nelson Ceaser and company are concerned.

“If we stay hungry, we’ll be in a good spot,” Ceaser says.

“I feel like coming off that 12-2 season, I feel like we got complacent. We thought we were more than we actually is. And we stopped working the way that we did when we were hungry.” — UH defensive end Nelson Ceaser

After all, everyone loves an underdog that wins.

“I love being the underdog,” UH starting running back Stacy Sneed tells PaperCity. “It’s like you’ve got more to prove. Not only to your fans. To the world. Going into the Big 12, I know we’re going to be the underdogs. We’re undersized in a lot of places.

“But our coaches have been coaching us and players have been stepping up as leaders and we’re going to be great this year.”

Somebody has got to believe. That’s how things start.


For more of Chris Baldwin’s extensive, detailed and unique insider coverage of UH sports — stories you cannot read anywhere else — bookmark this page. Follow Baldwin on Twitter here

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