It’s an exciting time for the Houston Cougars football team. They are ranked No. 13 in the latest AP poll. They are 10-0 for the first time since Case Keenum was flinging the ball all over the place. And they are perfectly positioned to land a major New Year’s Day bowl.
Saturday night’s remarkable come from behind win over Memphis once again displayed why this team has been so good. They lost their Heisman contending quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., in the first half while trailing 20-0. Their NFL-caliber cornerback and chief playmaker, William Jackson, was on the sidelines the entire game with a knee injury. And yet they found a way. Backup quarterback Kyle Postma looked every bit as sharp as Ward. The defense came up with some clutch turnovers to slow down the Memphis offensive juggernaut. And the Cougars rallied for an improbable victory.
The defense has been shaky the last two weeks, giving up over 500 yards passing to Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel and being victimized by Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, who could very well be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft. But as they have done all season, they came up with turnovers when it mattered and found ways to win the games.
The Cougars are simply a well coached, disciplined football team. They rarely turn the ball over. They don’t beat themselves. Those factors have been critical in the last two wins, and will need to continue during this most critical stretch of the season.
When the playoff rankings come out today, the Cougars will be too low. The narrative is they haven’t beaten anyone. While their schedule has had its share of cupcakes, there are also some quality wins. They have beaten two power five schools, a ranked Memphis team, and a Cincinnati squad whose four losses have been to Temple, Houston, Memphis and BYU, all teams that were ranked at some point, and all competitive losses (only a 14 point loss to BYU was outside of a one-score game).
The power five wins weren’t the Kansases of the world, either. While Louisville is down, they have bounced back from a slow start to be third in the ACC Atlantic. Vanderbilt has improved all season and was playing its best football when the Cougars beat them 34-0. A week after Houston took the Commodores to the woodshed, the same team threw a scare into No. 8 Florida in a 9-7 Gators win. Surrounding those two games were Vandy wins over Missouri and Kentucky.
Under the old BCS formula, the Cougars would be No. 12. When the playoff rankings come out, it’s unlikely they will be top 15, which is a shame, because clearly the committee has not been paying attention to this team. Talk of the four team-playoff is unrealistic. But the Cougars are a better football team with a better resume than a handful of teams that will be ranked above them.
Most of all, you can’t say enough about the job Tom Herman and his staff have done in one year. This same team was 8-4 last year with a lot of close losses. Herman and his staff have eliminated the late-game errors and costly mistakes, and the result is a perfect record.
Of course, success like that brings out the vultures, and Herman’s name will pop up for every major job out there. But playoff rankings, Herman’s future and hopes for a better conference should take a back seat over the next three weeks, where things will really get interesting.
The Cougars have a sneaky tough game coming up at UConn this week. The Huskies are playing their best football, and it would be easy for Houston to look ahead to the following week’s showdown with Navy. But wins in those two games would put Houston in the AAC Championship against Temple, with a major New Year’s Day bowl game on the line.
That would be an amazing accomplishment. And it’s incredible enough that UH is even in this spot. No matter what happens, it has been a great year. Ten win seasons do not grow on trees. The Cougars are playing meaningful games in late November, and it’s an exciting time for the program. If they can get to the Navy game undefeated, it would mark one of the biggest games of the college football season and further boost UH’s national profile. Navy has just one loss against playoff contender Notre Dame, and thoroughly demolished the same Memphis team that pushed the Cougars to the limit.
It would be an incredible game in a season that has been truly special so far. Just how special remains to be seen.