The Texans season might just about be over, but there are still several reasons to care about football in Houston. That is if you don't mind switching your attention to Saturday afternoons. Because with the college football season at the halfway mark, the Houston Cougars (5-1) and Rice Owls (5-2) are on the cusp of earning bowl eligibility, and in this last non-playoff year of FBS college football, bowl eligibility is still what it's all about.
Both squads can get the magical sixth victory this weekend. The guarantee of bowl status will probably be easier for the Owls, but the higher rewards are within the grasp of the Cougars, if they can withstand the onslaught of tougher competition they're about to face. The Owls are in a good position to get to the Liberty Bowl, the top bowl for Conference USA schools, but the Cougars are aiming higher, higher as in a BCS bowl.
The Cougars were poised to make the trip to a BCS bowl two years ago, only to collapse and suffer a humiliating defeat in the C-USA championship game. The Cougars of that year would've been crashing the party, earning the invite over a BCS-conference school on the balance of an undefeated season and a high ranking. This time out, the team's looking to take advantage of the American Athletic Conference's automatic BCS status, (which it inherited from the implosion of the Big East) and earn the automatic bid by winning the conference.
First the Cougars must win the conference, and that might be easier said than done. UH has moved through the easy part of its schedule, deposing the lesser lights of college football despite, at times, struggling to find consistency and rhythm on offense. But except for the season finale against SMU, the Cougars schedule is done with easy teams.
The Cougars head to New Jersey this Saturday where they'll take on 4-2 Rutgers. Rutgers should offer up a bit of a defensive challenge, but UH has stopped itself more often than it has been stopped by opposing defenses -- 17 of the Coogs 37 scoring drives this season have been under 2:00 in length and the Coogs have scored in all 24 quarters this season. Rutgers doesn't offer up an offense that's of the caliber of last week's foe BYU, so the Cougars should get the win to move to 6-1 (3-0). But coming down the line are the more elite teams of the conference -- UCF, Louisville, and Cincinnati. The Cougars should easily gain bowl eligibility and make a bowl, but to get to a BCS bowl the Coogs will need to win the conference. And even then, the Cougars will probably not only have to be ranked, but UH will need to make sure it's ranked higher than currently ranked teams Fresno St. and Northern Illinois who, though not in BCS conferences, can make a BCS bowl if they're ranked higher than a BCS conference champ -- UH nearly pulled this off two years ago before being humiliated by Southern Miss.
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The path for Rice is easier, though the reward may not be as glorious. The Owls currently sit atop the West Division of C-USA (tied with Tulane), and unlike with UH, there are no real difficult contests remaining on the schedule -- when North Texas (4-3) and Tulane (5-2) are the toughest remaining games, then the schedule's pretty damn easy.
In fact, the biggest obstacle to Rice success might be the Owls themselves. The Owls are a vastly improved team from the one that had to go on run and win five straight games at the end of the season to qualify for a bowl. But the Owls still have a tendency to self-destruct at inopportune times, whether by way of penalty, turnover, missed block, missed assignment, and so on. The offense has gone from the pass-oriented offense it was last year, to a heavy run offense anchored by senior running back Charles Ross who has eclipsed the 100-plus yard rushing mark three times this season.
The Owls chances of a BCS bowl are pretty much non-existent, even if they win their remaining games to go 10-2 (an actual possibility) and win the C-USA title game, probably playing either ECU or Marshall who are atop C-USA's East Division. But the strength of schedule is incredibly weak -- see North Texas and Tulane being the best remaining teams on the schedule -- and thus Rice's odds of not only getting ranked and finishing higher in the rankings than a BCS conference school are extremely slight. So about the best bowl the Owls can hope for is the Liberty Bowl in Memphis which is where the C-USA winner usually ends up playing.
So don't let the Texans' struggles drag you down. There's still good and entertaining football being played in Houston. You can even see the Cougars playing good football inside Reliant Stadium while Rice plays just down the road at Rice Stadium. And if you're a big enough fan, then hop on the train and follow UH and Rice on the road to bowl game triumphs.