So what happens to a season if a tackle is missed? Or a pass falls incomplete? There are so many plays in every football game that plenty of little moments that can go wrong do go wrong — moments that mean the difference between winning or losing the game, going to a bowl game or a coach being fired.
The Houston Cougars (10-1) and the Rice Owls (4-7) end their regular seasons this weekend. Houston hosts Navy Friday at 11 a.m. With a win, the Cougars play for the conference title next week, and with a win next week, likely head off to one of the major New Year's bowl games against a big-shot team from a major conference. With a loss, however, the Cougars head off to some minor bowl game in a non-glamorous time slot.
Is the season a disappointment if the Cougars lose Friday?
Even after last week’s 20-17 loss to UConn, it’s hard to consider the Houston season a disappointment. The team’s been battered by injuries, especially on the offensive line. Kyle Postma, who started at QB for Houston last week, was a back-up receiver when the season started; now he’s just another injured quarterback on a roster full of banged-up quarterbacks (head coach Tom Herman said earlier this week that he probably wouldn’t even know if Postma or Greg Ward Jr. starts this week).
Running back Kenneth Farrow is day-to-day with an ankle injury. His backup, Ryan Jackson, is out for the season. The Cougars are even considering pulling the red shirts off of two freshman backs because of all the injuries.
“Absolutely,” Herman responded Monday when asked if the team exceeded his expectations. “Just off the top of my head, we had four games against teams that were more talented than us. Louisville from top to bottom had more talent than us. Vanderbilt from top to bottom had more talent than us. Cincinnati top to bottom had more talent than us. Memphis top to bottom had more talent than us. What our guys do is play really hard, and they play for the love of the guy next to them. They play with a passion and a purpose that I would put up against anybody else’s in the country right now.”
And maybe the chance for the perfect season is gone, but Herman has said in the past that this season wasn’t about being undefeated. It was about winning the conference. That’s the goal the team set at the beginning of the season, and if the team can overcome the injuries and defeat 10-1 Navy, then the chance of a conference title is still alive. But if UH loses, is the season a disappointment?
What about the Owls? The Owls were a preseason pick to compete for the Conference USA title. And at one point this season, the team was 4-3 and in prime position for a bowl game owing to the presence of UTEP, UTSA and Charlotte on the schedule. Just winning two of those games would give the Owls bowl eligibility, would have sent the team to its fourth bowl game in four seasons. Instead, the team’s on a four-game losing streak and playing Charlotte for pride on Saturday.
For Rice, it all seemingly went so wrong, so fast. A good team coming off three straight bowl games, and a conference title two seasons ago. But then came embarrassing losses to Baylor, to Western Kentucky. Injuries caused the coaches to play far more freshmen than was expected. And essentially, it all came down to focus, about looking too far into the future, to goals of bowl games, instead of focusing on the game to be played that day, on the next play, on getting things right in practice.
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"All you can do at this point is play for pride,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said Monday. “You have to keep working. That’s where we are. We went to three straight bowls. Nobody likes the position that we’re in. We wanted to go to a bowl game. You sit around as the head coach and you reflect on how to improve, and it’s on me to improve the team. But this was the first year that, I think, I let this team get too worried about the prize. I used to talk to them constantly about (how) winning football games is like climbing a mountain. You know you want to ascend to the top, but you have to keep your eyes on where you are and not at the top. I think I let these guys look up too much on what the prize could be instead of worrying about where we were day to day.”
Too often the Owls this season resembled the Owls of horrendous seasons past. Too many stupid and selfish mistakes, too many bad routes run, tackles missed. They didn't look like a team that went to bowl games, rather like one of those teams you beat to gain bowl eligibility. It’s something that Rice thought they put behind them years ago. And it’s something that obviously has to be fixed.
So the Owls go out on Saturday with the goal of beating a bad Charlotte team. It won’t make the team bowl-eligible. It won’t make up for the mistakes of this season. But if the Owls win the game, what does it mean for this season, or for next? Maybe a win sets a positive tone for next season, helps to set right the wrong ways the team got into this season. But what if it’s a loss? Does the losing carry over into next season? Does it forebode a return to the pitiful Owls some hoped were banished forever?
Triumph or disappointment. This weekend should decide for UH and Rice.