On the surface, all seems well with the University of Houston football program, with the #HTownTakeover rolling through the American Athletic Conference now like an unstoppable tsunami. Hell, if we're going by the length of the weekly media relations emails with fun factoids about the program (shout out to UH Media Relations guru, David Bassity... love that guy!), which are about the same number of printed pages as your average Bill Simmons column back in his ESPN Page 2 days (hint: LONG), things have never been better!
The Cougars sit at No. 6 in the AP poll and fifth in the coaches' poll, so on the field, with the business they can control, the Coogs are getting an A+. Unfortunately, there's no program dealing with more ancillary drama — playoff resume, keeping their head coach, conference realignment — drama that's out of its hands, and those areas in the last week or so received a solid D- in helping the Coogs' secure their future on the college football landscape, in 2016 and beyond.
Let's examine each one...
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Given their residence outside of the Power Five conferences, the Coogs don't have the luxury of being able to say "Just win, baby!" They will inherently need to a) actually be super impressive in all of their wins, b) root for their opponents the rest of the way to remain stout in their non-UH games so the Coogs' wins seem even more impressive, and c) hope that at least a couple of the Power Five conference champs stumble once or twice somewhere along the way.
Of those three things, only one of them was aided by outcomes this weekend, and that's the part the Coogs can control — they smoked UConn like a brisket. However, the other two items took their hits. First, the top three opponents left on the schedule this regular season for UH are (in chronological order of scheduling) Navy, Louisville and Memphis. and each of them lost this past weekend in fairly high profile fashion — Navy to undefeated Air Force, Louisville to third-ranked Clemson, and Memphis in a revenge game for Ole Miss. This leaves the Coogs with slightly less impressive pelts to hang on their wall after they (hopefully) beat all three.
Second, the Power Five conferences all still have at least one (some more) undefeated teams. I am steadfast in my belief that the Coogs will need at least two of the Power Five conference champions to have losses if they are to make the College Football Playoff. If you're keeping track at home, and looking for schools to root against, here are the remaining undefeated Power Five teams by conference (with AP ranking):
SEC: (1) Alabama, (8) Texas A&M, (9) Tennessee
Big Ten: (2) Ohio State, (4) Michigan, (12) Nebraska, (NR) Maryland
ACC: (3) Clemson, (10) Miami, FL
Pac-12: (5) Washington,
Big XII: (13) Baylor, (22) West Virginia
Right now, the biggest threats to Houston are Washington (who will be favored in all of their games the rest of the way), Clemson (ditto), Alabama (probably favored in every game, too), and the winner of Ohio State-Michigan. These teams won't all get through unscathed, they never do, but it's hard to see where they will be losing.
One final interesting wrinkle — what if Baylor went through the season undefeated at 12-0, and there was one spot left in the playoff for either Baylor or Houston? How ironic would it be if an undefeated Houston made it into the playoff over the undefeated champ of the very conference to which they're trying to gain admittance? And before you laugh, understand that an undefeated UH will have easily the best non-conference win of the two teams (an assumed win over Louisville), and have an impressive win over Oklahoma. What a fascinating possibility, right?
TOM HERMAN'S FUTURE
If you're a University of Houston fan, and you were putting together a list of schools for whom to root this season to ensure that you had the highest possible probability of retaining head coach Tom Herman for 2017 (and hopefully, beyond), my guess is that you wouldn't get to ten schools without listing Texas, USC, LSU, possibly Auburn and maybe even Notre Dame. Well, these five schools all had two or three losses before October 2, and one of them (LSU) has already fired their head coach. Another one (Texas) has already let stories leak that their head coach is essentially gone at the end of the season, in the wake of a bad loss at Oklahoma State on Saturday. When you add up the high profile, resource-rich nature of these jobs alongside the serious dearth of great candidates in the college football head coach job pool this offseason, it adds up to Tom Herman commanding a small mint to go coach at one of the blue bloods of college football.
BIG XII EXPANSION
The closer we get to October 17, the date of the Big XII presidents meeting, the more it looks like the Big XII will turn the last several months of blood, sweat and tears for schools like Houston, Cincinnati, UConn and BYU into one big popcorn fart. The one Big XII president who'd been trumpeting conference expansion louder than all the rest was Oklahoma president David Boren. Now, Boren is pumping the brakes on expansion, saying that the league may opt to stay with ten schools. Boren or no Boren, the cruel math of this matter is that all it takes to keep UH out of the conference is three "no" votes from the current constituency, and given some of the scuttlebutt (namely, opposing coaches like Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy concerned with adding the challenge of recruiting against a Big XII-strengthened UH to the conference) on the ground the last few weeks, it's looking less and less likely that Houston makes the jump to the Power Five in this round of realignment (or, in this case, discussion of possible realignment).
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.