After spending the last few months breaking down every angle in college football, it’s finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: The true national championship contenders. After starting with Ohio State Monday and hitting the Washington Huskies on Tuesday, it’s time to now take a look at the little-underdog-that-isn’t-actually-an-underdog-anymore: the Houston Cougars. That’s right, business is booming for Tom Herman in H-Town, and with a combination of some elite talent and the right schedule, Houston really does have a chance to make this year’s playoff and win it. Here are five reasons why.
They’ve got the schedule to do it
Dating all the way back to the archaic, Paleolithic days of Boise State and the BCS in the late 2000s, if we’ve learned one thing about non-Power 5 schools and the college football postseason it's that it's not just how good you are, but how good everyone else is and how good the teams you play are. One thing about Houston that unequivocally cannot be denied is they have a schedule that, if they can run the table, would lead to a very compelling case for them to make the College Football Playoff. They open the season against Oklahoma in Houston (although it’s technically a “neutral site” game at NRG Stadium) and also play a really good Louisville team in the second to last game of the season. The Cards are every bit the playoff dark horse Houston is. With 19 returning starters, they're good enough to win the ACC this year. If the Cougars can bookend a manageable AAC schedule with wins over the Sooners and Cards, it’d be really, really hard to keep them out of the playoff.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
They’ve got a star at QB in Greg Ward Jr.
Will Ward Jr. win the Heisman Trophy this year? Probably not. But you could make a very compelling case that he is the most valuable player in college football. In his first season playing in Herman’s fast-paced system, Ward threw for 2,828 yards to go along with over 1,100 yards on the ground, tallying a staggering 38 total touchdowns. That, of course, included a combined 300 yards in the Cougars’ stunning Peach Bowl win over Florida State, and in the process Ward joined Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as the only players in college football to throw for over 2,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 last season. However, if you want to know Ward’s true value, it actually came in a game where he barely played last season. The Cougars were 14-0 in games where Ward was essentially at full-strength, and their only loss of the year came to a 6-7 UConn team in a game where Ward was limited by an ankle injury. I’m a proud UConn alum, but if the Cougars could beat Florida State with Ward in the lineup and lose to the Huskies without him, that shows exactly how valuable he is.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis
They’ve got more than just Ward on offense, though
One of the great misnomers about Houston is that Ward is the Cougars’ entire offense. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as Houston has more talent on the offensive side of the ball than anyone realizes. At wide receiver, Ward has former Oregon Duck Chance Allen to throw to, a player who had 56 catches last year with six touchdowns. He should move into the No. 1 wide receiver spot vacated by DeMarcus Ayers, and look for Steven Dunbar (31 catches, three touchdowns last year) to move into Allen’s No. 2 role. At running back, the Cougars lost Kenneth Farrow from last season but welcome arguably a more talented replacement in Duke Catalon. Catalon is a former four-star recruit who originally committed to Texas before redshirting in 2014 and sitting out last season. Back on the field for the first time in three years, Catalon is already receiving rave reviews at Cougars practices.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis
They’ve got arguably the most opportunistic defense in college football
Realistically, it’s no secret the Cougars don’t have the size, skill or depth of most major playoff contenders on defense (although getting recruits like five-star freshman Ed Oliver certainly helps), but the one thing you can’t deny is the Cougars have quite possibly the most opportunistic defense in the entire sport. Houston led all of college football in total takeaways last season, tallying 35. They finished No. 2 in the country in turnover margin and in the Top 10 nationally in both interceptions (seventh, with 21 total) and fumbles gained (third, with 14). And for those who think all those turnovers came against overmatched AAC foes, think again. The Cougars forced four turnovers in a road win at Louisville, four more against Vanderbilt and a grand total of five in that Peach Bowl win over Florida State. What’s even better than that? They combined for just two turnovers themselves in those three games.
Getty ImagesScott Cunningham
Doubt Tom Herman at your own risk
Whenever a guy goes from receivers coach at Texas Lutheran to the offensive coordinator at one of the best programs in the country in a 15-year stretch (like Herman did from 1998 to 2013), you know he has his stuff together. When that same guy wins a national championship the following year with an offense that improved every single week for four straight months, while juggling two different quarterbacks, you know he is spectacular. But if there is any doubt just how great Herman is as a coach, it was probably on display in his first year in Houston. In just a few short months Herman changed the culture of a good, but not great, 7-5 team and turned them into a 14-1 squad, which won their conference and not just beat the Seminoles in Atlanta, but embarrassed them. Maybe the craziest part is he did it after the Buckeyes’ title run, which ended in mid-January and forced him to wait six extra weeks before coming to Houston. With a full year under his belt, what is Tom Herman capable of in his second go-around in H-Town? With Herman in charge, I believe the Cougars not only have enough talent to make the College Football Playoff but win it.