After playing a major part of Ohio State’s 2014 national title run, coach Tom Herman has Houston thinking championship in his debut season.
The unbeaten Cougars take the field as a ranked team for the first time in four seasons in Friday night’s American Athletic Conference clash at Tulane.
Not satisfied with two straight minor bowl trips, Houston (5-0, 2-0 AAC) fired Tony Levine in December and brought in Herman, the coordinator of a prolific Ohio State offense that propelled the Buckeyes to victory in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The change has reaped immediate benefits, as the Cougars rank sixth in FBS in scoring (46.4 ppg) and total offense (573.4 ypg) with their strong start.
Last week’s 49-28 win over SMU earned No. 24 Houston its first appearance in the AP Top 25 since finishing 18th in the final 2011 poll.
"It’s nice to see that, and it lets us know that we’ve been doing a good job," senior running back Kenneth Farrow said. "But no one is taking anything for granted. We need to go out there every day and continue working like we’ve been working."
That 2011 team went 13-1 while led by the dynamic coach and quarterback tandem of Kevin Sumlin and Case Keenum. The Cougars seem to have found a similar formula in Herman and converted wide receiver Greg Ward Jr., who’s completed 72.3 percent of his passes with an 8-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio while averaging 110.8 rushing yards.
"Their quarterback is electric," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said.
Ward also ranks among the national leaders with 11 rushing touchdowns after scoring a career-high four against SMU on Oct. 8, five days after amassing 182 yards and three scores on the ground at Tulsa.
The junior faces a new challenge in Houston’s first visit to Yulman Stadium, where the Cougars could be without three starting offensive linemen. Right tackle Zach Johnson (knee) and guard Josh Thomas (ankle) suffered likely season-ending injuries last week and left tackle Marcus Oliver is questionable after spraining an ankle against SMU.
"To say the playbook is wide open is foolish, because it’s not," said Herman of the injuries. "This problem is not going to away. It’s not a Tulane issue. It’s going to be a season-long issue that we really need to think long and hard about what we’re asking them to do."
Tulane (2-3, 1-1) doesn’t appear to pose a big threat to the Cougars remaining unblemished – its two victories have come against FCS-level Maine and winless UCF. The Green Wave have been outscored 151-27 in losses to Duke, Georgia Tech and still-unbeaten Temple.
Moreover, Tulane will be without quarterback Tanner Lee Friday after he was concussed during last week’s 49-10 defeat at Temple. Senior Devin Powell will make his fourth career start and first since 2013 in his place.
"I’m hoping he can give us a Michael Vick-like performance like (Monday) night," said Johnson in reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ comeback win at San Diego. "That’s what he reminds me of. A quarterback that can get you out of a game, win the game, and knows enough of the offense, that throws it well enough and gives you a chance to win the game."
Johnson may be relying more on an opportunistic defense that’s induced 12 takeaways this season and intercepted Ward four times as the Green Wave snapped a 10-game series losing streak with a 31-24 road win last November. Lee threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns and running back Dontrell Hilliard had a rushing and receiving touchdown while compiling 192 total yards.
An effective running game should also boost Tulane’s chances of ending a 38-game losing streak against ranked teams. The Green Wave have produced 375 rushing yards in their two wins and averaged 34.7 yards in the three losses. They were held to eight by Temple.
Tulane’s last win over a Top 25 program was a 27-23 victory over then-No. 19 Vanderbilt in 1984. The Green Wave haven’t beaten a ranked team at home since a 24-17 triumph over No. 19 SMU at the Superdome in 1979.