No longer underdogs, Houston Cougars must now live up to the hype

(Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Houston coach Tom Herman knew what I was going to ask Sunday as soon as I said the words, "Now you guys are going to be …"

"I know," he said, before adding sarcastically: "Dammit."

Following their rousing 33-23 win over No. 3 Oklahoma, Herman’s purportedly underdog Cougars are now certain to be talked about as a potential playoff team for as long as they keep winning. And after beating one of last year’s playoff participants, they’ll now be expected to handle everyone on their schedule up until at least their Nov. 17 home game against current Top 20 foe Louisville.

Herman doesn’t want to hear that — not with a Thursday night game at Cincinnati coming up right after this weekend’s date with Lamar — but there’s no avoiding it now.

"The one thing that allows us to sleep at night is we had [the Peach Bowl win over Florida State] last year — all of those preseason expectations — they existed our entire offseason and our guys didn’t blink," Herman told FOX Sports. "We have a culture of insulation that doesn’t allow it. I can’t imagine it would be any different now that we won as opposed to the eight months leading up to the game."

Houston also has a heck of a lot of talent, as it showed again Saturday, starting of course with Heisman-contending quarterback Greg Ward Jr. Stud receiver Steven Dunbar, who caught seven of Ward’s passes for 125 yards, needed to have a big game, said Herman, to exploit Oklahoma’s tendency to put its cornerbacks on an island. And the Cougars’ inexperienced safeties helped slow down a talented Sooners offense after the first quarter.

In general, though, "They have better players than us, let’s not kid ourselves," said Herman. "They have a bunch of four- and five-star recruits and they’re that way for a reason. But our starting 22 against their starting 22, we can hold up."

The one area where Houston truly matches up personnel-wise with not just Oklahoma but nearly any Power 5 school is on its defensive line. Highlighted by five-star true freshman Ed Oliver, Houston owned the line of scrimmage, limiting Oklahoma to just 70 rushing yards. Heaven help AAC offensive lines.

"Right now there are five guys on the defensive line rotation, they’re all different ages, that will be able to play in the National Football League," said Herman. "In the American Conference, to be able say that about your defensive line is impressive."

Keep that comment in mind if Houston does indeed get to 9-0 prior to the first committee rankings. While hard to say without knowing what the rest of the landscape will look like, it’s safe to assume the Cougars will find themselves at the center of a fierce debate about their playoff worthiness.

By no objective measure will their schedule line up against the top teams from the power conferences. But as the committee has said many times, it’s not the four most deserving teams, it’s the four best teams.

Houston made a pretty emphatic opening case. Now it will deal with the forthcoming spotlight that comes with it.