Tom Herman isn’t interested in the regular-season poll, but his unbeaten Houston team knows it won’t hurt to add a victory over an SEC opponent to its resume.
That could become a more difficult task for the 18th-ranked Cougars if their star running back can’t go in Saturday night’s home game against defensive-minded Vanderbilt.
Houston (7-0) struggled early last Saturday before running off 52 unanswered points en route to a 59-10 road win over Central Florida. The squad extended its best start since winning a program record-tying eight straight to open the 2011 season and climbed to its highest ranking since finishing 18th in that 13-1 campaign.
"(The polls) don’t mean anything (right now)," Herman scoffed. "Simply, they’re for people to talk about. None of it really means anything to us."
Houston has won a nation-best five games by 21 points or more, but its only victory over a Power 5 conference was a 34-31 road win against 3-4 Louisville on Sept. 12. The Cougars now have another one of those matchups to begin a stretch of four of five at home.
Vanderbilt (3-4) rode its highly ranked defense to its first SEC victory in 12 games last Saturday. It allowed its fewest points in three years and its fewest total yards in a conference game since 2006 with a 10-3 home win over Missouri.
"That’s not the best we can be," linebacker Darreon Herring said. "We’ve still got five more games and everybody is going to see our defense roll back with this."
The Commodores rank 13th nationally with 16.3 points allowed per game and 22nd in total defense, yielding an average of 316.7 yards. They’re also third in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 22 percent after the Tigers went 0 for 14.
"There doesn’t need to be a whole lot of motivation in terms of the opponent that you are playing," Herman added. "I want to make sure this week that the focus and preparation is solid. Our guys know who (the Commodores) are, and what they did last week to Missouri and the conference that they are in."
The Cougars, one of 12 remaining unbeaten teams, boast one of the nation’s top offenses and rank fourth with 47.6 points and fifth with 561.1 yards per game.
However, they could be missing one of their top playmakers after Kenneth Farrow left Saturday’s game in the third quarter with a head injury. The senior, who has rushed for 669 yards and eight TDs, took a helmet-to-helmet hit on the last of his three scores.
If he cannot go, Ryan Jackson and Javin Webb would likely share backfield duties.
"(Farrow) continues to get updated and checked on and everything, and it looks good at this point, but we won’t know until he is cleared for practice," Herman said.
Junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has been Houston’s top rusher with 677 yards and is tied with LSU’s Leonard Fournette with 15 touchdowns despite 73 fewer carries. He’s the only player in FBS to average over 200 passing yards (247.7) and over 90 rushing (96.7).
The Commodores could have a difficult time keeping up as the eighth-lowest scoring team in the nation at 18.0 points per game. They’re also tied for 10th with 17 turnovers.
Redshirt-sophomore Johnny McCrary had a SEC-worst 10 interceptions before freshman Kyle Shurmur replaced him as the starter last week. After both quarterbacks saw action versus Missouri, coach Derek Mason is expected to use the same approach Saturday.
Ralph Webb rushed for 99 yards and scored Vandy’s only touchdown last week, but he could have a tougher time facing a Houston defense ranked second in the American Athletic Conference against the run at 98.3 yards allowed per game.
Adrian McDonald, a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s top defensive back, is one interception away from setting Houston’s career record with 17.
The Cougars dropped the only meeting between the schools on Jan. 4, 2014, 41-24 at the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama.