This Houston Cougar football season was never about a perfect season. It was never about going to one of the big games. If you ask head coach Tom Herman, this football season was about one thing: winning the conference. And come tomorrow, Herman and his team will get that chance to win the conference.
There probably weren’t too many people at the start of this season who expected the Cougars to be in this position. Then again, there probably weren’t too many people who expected the Cougars to be 10-0 at one point this season, or for the Cougars to be in a position to be the Group of Five representative at either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Yet here the Cougars are with a 11-1 record and hosting the 10-2 Temple Owls for the AAC title.
The Cougars come into this game with the nation’s 14th-ranked rushing offense and the country’s 8th-ranked scoring offense. The team also features the 13th-best rush defense in the NCAA and is No. 22 in scoring defense.
It’s also a team that’s been decimated by injury yet has still found a way to keep winning football games. Greg Ward Jr. has been dealing with an ankle injury that he suffered during the Memphis game. His backup, Kyle Postma, started the season as a backup wide receiver, but ended up at quarterback after Ward’s backup was injured, only to himself be injured in the next game.
Running back Kenneth Farrow, the key piece to that highly ranked rushing offense, was injured against UConn, missed last week’s Navy game and is still iffy for this week. His backup, Ryan Jackson, is gone for the season, and last week’s starting running back was Brandon Wilson, who just the week before was one of the starting cornerbacks. None of the above is meant to diminish the massive injuries to the offense line or all across the defense.
So to see the Cougars still playing for the conference title this week should answer the question of why Herman’s name has been linked to seemingly every college head coaching job that has opened up over the past several months. And it’s easy to see why the UH administration was so willing to renegotiate the first-year head coach’s contract.
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The focus for the Cougars tomorrow is winning the conference. That was the season’s goal. And Herman’s doing his best to keep the team focused on that goal, and keeping the team confident in its ability to win the game.
“Our goal wasn’t to be 11-1, our goal wasn’t to be 12-0, our goal wasn’t to be the West Division Champions, our goal was to win the conference, and we are that close,” Herman said earlier this week. “I told [the team], and gave them an example, and I said that two really big games that we have had recently, one was Memphis and one was Navy. In the Memphis game, especially on offense, but on defense as well, we came out and we played awful in the first half: I mean awful. Against Navy, probably even higher stakes, we came out like gangbusters. So I said that it is my job as coach to figure out why. In my professional estimation, the word was "confidence." You guys were confident in the game plan, you were confident in your teammates and how they prepared, but most importantly, you were confident in the preparation that you had throughout the week.”
Remember, it’s not about the rankings. It’s not about whether the Cougars play in Atlanta or Phoenix on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Ever since this season started, it’s been about Houston winning the conference. So now it’s time for the Cougars to put the rest of the season in the rearview mirror. The goal is right in front of the team. And unlike 2011, the last time the Cougars played a conference title game, this year distractions seem to have been kept to a minimum and the focus seems to be all on the game.
Kickoff tomorrow from Houston’s TDECU Stadium is set for 11:00. The game will be aired nationally on ABC. But as of yesterday afternoon, there were still tickets remaining at TDECU Stadium (not helped by Temple's returning as unsold most of its ticket allotment) so why watch on TV when you can experience the game in person on what promises to be an absolutely beautiful day?