Photo of TDECU Stadium hours before last season's opening night.EXPAND
Photo of TDECU Stadium hours before last season's opening night.
John Royal

Houston Cougars Take the Next Big Step

It’s been a long time coming, but the Houston Cougars have finally decided to stop playing FCS schools when it comes to football. The Cougars are vowing to play at least two power conference teams a season to go along with two non-power conference teams to go along with the school’s eight-game conference schedule. For a collegiate program that wants to be taken seriously every season, this is definitely the right decision, especially considering the mediocre quality of the American Athletic Conference.

“We think having a quality schedule year in and year out will give us the best chance to play in a New Year's Six bowl and continue to help us build the image of our football program,” Hunter Yurachek, UH’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics, said in the Chronicle on Wednesday. “I think a quality schedule is a step in the right direction. And we have to win the games.”

And for all my complaints against the program, UH has done a tremendous job with improving football. The school’s becoming a mid-tier bowl fixture and while the conference isn’t great, the AAC appears to be more stable than C-USA, UH’s former conference. There’s the new stadium and increased media visibility. You occasionally even hear non-alumni talking about the school and the team.

Unfortunately, the school itself still seems to be stuck in neutral. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the backfire that was the Tony Levine hire to replace Kevin Sumlin as head coach. And while the Cougars have talked a big game, the fact that the school has continued to schedule schools like Tennessee Tech has made taking it seriously in the national football conversation more and more difficult. Then there’s the basic fact that UH fans are tired of seeing a non-competitive schedule (perhaps that's why many won't buy tickets for such games).

“We've heard loud and clear (from the fan base) they don't want us to play FCS schools,” Yurachek said.

The devil is, of course, in the details. But right now, the details look pretty good. Houston currently has home-and-home games scheduled through 2022 with Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Kansas, Arizona, Vanderbilt and Louisville, which means the Coogs will be going up against the Big 12, SEC, Pac 12 and ACC on a yearly basis. UH also currently has some games set up with Rice and Texas State, and is working with Rice to extend the Bayou Bucket game into 2020 and 2021.

The move also comes at a time when the power conferences are also forbidding their members to schedule games against FCS schools, so the time is right for UH to start playing with the big boys and showing that yes, it does deserve real, big-boy bowl games. And since UH is now clearly the superior school to such programs as Texas, it’s time for the Cougars to put the pressure on UT to play at TDECU Stadium — unless, of course, the Horns are still afraid of Houston.

Yurachek vows that these games will be played at TDECU Stadium instead of at neutral sites, and that could be just the thing for guaranteeing that the place is consistently packed. That would be a good thing because Houston did quite a good job with the stadium, placing it on top of the old Robertson Stadium, making it feel like an extension of the school. Plus it sits right by the new rail line, which hopefully people will find a way to use, cutting back on traffic to and from the campus.

The Cougars still have one more FCS team to play, and that’s hosting Lamar next September. But after that, Houston should be all big-boy schools all the time. Which means that in a matter of just over a year, the Cougars have massively improved their stadium situation, their coaching staff and now, finally, their schedule. The Cougars are still a long way from being invited to join one of the power conferences, but improved scheduling, coaching and stadium are important, necessary steps. Now it’s just up to the team not only to schedule the games, but to start winning them on a consistent basis as well. 

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