HOUSTON – Start talking about the Houston Cougars as a serious College Football Playoff contender.
With Saturday’s 33-23 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma, Houston immediately stamped itself as a Group of 5 team capable of cracking the code to the CFP selection committee’s top four. Because Houston hails from the American Athletic Conference, it faces a greater burden to go undefeated because of generally weaker schedules.
Oklahoma, though, was a big-boy barometer, and Houston measured up with the best the Big 12 has to offer.
“I think it’s pretty impressive,” said Houston vice president of athletics Hunter Yurachek. “We’re not your typical Group of 5 program. I think you see a lot of Power 5 stuff happening on the Houston sideline and with our fan base. So it sends an impressive message to anybody who’s watching.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was watching at NRG Stadium, but the most powerful people in the sport right now are the 12 members of the selection committee, and there’s no way they will miss this upset.
It’s not just that Houston beat the No. 3 ranked team in the country on Kickoff Week, it’s that Houston looked great — a fact that won’t be lost on the five former coaches in the committee room when they watch the game film. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. throws a beautiful pass, his offensive line gave him plenty of time to throw, his receivers were wide open, and they excited the crowd with four plays of more than 20 yards – just in the first half.
The performance was even highlighted by a kick-six.
The CFP’s first official top 25 doesn’t come out until Nov. 1, but this is the kind of nonconference win that will carry weight with the committee all season long. They put a huge emphasis on strength of schedule, and there are dozens of teams throughout the country that won’t have a win that measures up to this one.
Of course, there are a few things that need to happen.
Oklahoma can’t completely tank. This is a good win, and it will remain a good win, but it will help Houston tremendously if OU rebounds and contends for the Big 12 title. At the end of November, the committee will tally up how many wins Houston has against teams ranked in its top 25.
That’s why the Cougars also need the entire American Conference to again impress the selection committee the way it did in 2015, when three teams (No. 18 Houston, No. 21 Navy and No. 24 Temple) finished in the committee’s final top 25. As of right now, No. 19 Louisville of the ACC is the only other ranked opponent on Houston’s schedule, which will be a problem when compared with the likes of the Pac-12 and SEC conference slates.
For all of the doubt surrounding the Group of 5’s place in the playoff era, though, Houston’s victory should serve as a reminder that the committee hasn’t been presented with a team like the Cougars yet – a well-coached, talented group that could be good enough to unseat a Power 5 conference champ.
With each victory, this conversation will get more serious, and Houston likely still has to go undefeated to have a true chance at the top four. It already has the committee’s attention, though. It earned its respect last year as the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion and beat No. 9 Florida State last year in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Houston might not be Power 5 status in the conference standings, but it has certainly proven capable of knocking off a CFP semifinalist.
Just ask Oklahoma.
“We all believed we could do it,” Ward said. “We shocked the nation.”