Tom Herman's Houston Cougars are trying to make history as the first non-power 5 school to reach the playoff. We've had non-power 5 BCS schools, the BCS gave one spot to a non-power 5 school, so long as they were really, really good. (i.e. Boise State, TCU, and UCF) Herman's team has fought their way into the national spotlight after hugely successful 13-1 season in 2015. In 2015 the Cougars, in spite of an undefeated record for much of the season, couldn't crack the top 15 nor were they ever considered for the playoffs according to the committee rankings.
Now the Cougars are ranked in the top 10 (top 5 according to some) and, if they can run the table, might sneak into the big boy room. That's if they survive their schedule including a brutal September.
By the time October hits the Cougars will have played 5 games in 26 days. Their September schedule culminates Thursday night with a home game against UConn. For the season Houston will play three Thursday night games, none of which follow a bye week. The Coogs September looks like this...neutral/home opener against OU; home game vs. Lamar on September 10; five days later a road game at Cincy; September 24th road game at Texas State and finally, five days later a home game at September 28 against UConn. Their last Thursday game is a short week game against Louisville at Thursday in November.
Among the current AP top 5, Clemson plays 5 games in 28 days during the same September 3rd to October 1st stretch. In that period the Tigers play one Thursday night game, which was last week at Georgia Tech. So one short prep week. Louisville will play two short prep week games, a Friday night game vs. Duke and the aforementioned Thursday trip to Houston.
Alabama, doesn't play a single weekday game. Neither does Ohio State. Neither does Michigan. If you think Thursday games don't matter, listen to how NFL teams bitch and moan about their Thursday schedule.
Depth is a huge demarcation between the power 5 and non power 5 schools. Attrition takes its toll, and while a Houston's front line players might be able to stand up to anyone, as the depth chart comes into play that's not the case.
By the time September is over, the Cougars will have averaged 5 days between games. That's less recovery and less practice time than any other team in the country. Let alone one with a legitimate chance at a National Title. To give you an idea, the Cougars will play their remaining 7 games in 56 days, not including a potential AAC title game. That's 7 games in 56 days, with an average of eight days prep/rest between games.
Television is the 21st century cash cow and for a school like Houston that's trying to compete with the Joneses, every dollar counts. According to Forbes, in 2014 Houston spent $11.3 million on football, no other Top 10 program spent less than $20 million. Houston has increased expenditures on the its program, Herman's assistants will make $2.35 million, split among nine coaches this season, but that number is still a drop in the bucket compared to the $30 million per season that Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, and Alabama spend. Herman has argued that unless the AAC hits a "home run" TV deal at the next round of discussions, the school and conference may not be able to keep up. How do you hit a home run? You make your league valuable.
The AAC actually lost revenue from their Big East levels after making the move to formation and after the move to the playoff system. As much as 45% less. AAC schools make an estimated $2 million per year in TV revenue. Compare that to the Big 10 which will pay each member $31.4 million in revenue or the SEC's $31.2 million. Before you play a down or sell a ticket your down almost $30 million.
ESPN plays an increasing role in college scheduling. As much as some athletic directors. The network will broadcast almost 500 games on its family of networks. Those are a lot of hours of programing and live sports are a key factor in cable and satellite subscription numbers. ESPN wants eyes on its Thursday night lineup. They can't ask Alabama or Michigan to play those games. Those schools have bargaining leverage over ESPN and just about everyone else. But the AAC, they need exposure and so does Houston. So boom, three midweek games
The AAC need Houston to make a run and they need eye balls to watch it happen. The AAC's TV deal is up after 2019-2020. The leagues most marketable program right now is Houston. If Houston can drive up viewership that's a feather in the cap of the league and all those eyes will be a driving force of a negotiation that is probably going to be difficult at best for the AAC. Cords are cutting and the league doesn't have the power 5 weight to demand power 5 money.
But it's not just about money. While the exposure is good for Houston, Thursday games and heaven forbid Friday games cause problems. Recruiting is the lifeblood for college programs. If Houston wants to bring in quality frontline talent and quality depth, they need to recruit at a high level. Thursday games fall right in the middle of Texas high school football's game week. Especially those who need to travel from outside the city. Recruiting weekends are less impactful as recruits are less likely to travel prior to their own games or can't travel on high school game nights.
There's an interconnectedness here, if you want to compete at the highest levels you'll need to spend, to spend you'll need to generate revenue from somewhere, to generate revenue you'll need to be successful on the field and on television, to be successful you'll need to recruit, to recruit you'll spend on facilities. Do all that with roughly $30 million less money than the syndicate teams. If you're Houston you'll need to do all that with more games crammed into a smaller window of time.
So, all this goes back to 5 games in 26 days. Two Thursday games, one on the road, on short weeks. All that because ESPN is selling ad space and the AAC needs a bargaining chip. The Cougars road to a playoff road was hard enough, having to beat Oklahoma, Louisville, Navy, et al, their TV deal responsibilities it harder.