Undefeated USF comes to Houston on Saturday with the former coach at Texas and a former quarterback at Alabama and Arizona State. Houston’s no strangers to name-brands and this weekend represents another chance for the Coogs to establish themselves on a national level.
The Cougars have been here before. In 2015 Houston beat a good Louisville team on the road then handled three ranked opponents in their last three games including ninth-ranked Florida State. In 2017 the Coogs upset Baker Mayfield and the Sooners at NRG. Last year the Cougars upset these same South Florida Bulls in Tampa.
Like it or not, the playoff chances for a G5 team are slim and none, it’s the system the syndicate created, one designed to keep the status quo in place. What is available to the G5 is a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Just one spot. At 6-1, Houston is in a group of three or four teams with a realistic shot to get the bid, the exposure, and the bank.
The others are undefeated South Florida, and UCF, one loss Cincinnati, and you can probably include San Diego State with Fresno State looking in from just outside. The AAC East teams will likely cannibalize each other, and San Diego State and Fresno meet November 17th. Winner gets a boost; the loser is out.
Houston’s path to a New Year’s Six bid is more defined. They end their season with three of five at home, and after South Florida, the one roadblock on paper is a trip to Memphis to finish the season. If the Cougars can survive that, they’ll get a date with whoever comes out of the AAC East gauntlet.
An AAC title is great, but what Houston really wants, and some might argue needs, is to get to a New Year’s Six game and get another shot at a Power 5 opponent. They want the National Spotlight. You could easily argue they’ll earn it. In the past ten years, Houston’s been the most consistent winner in the state of Texas, winning the Peach Bowl in 2016 and putting up three seasons with ten or more wins.
The facilities are on par with any Power 5 team, but the real power behind the Houston program is its recruiting area. Houston doesn’t have to use a half-tank of gas to find all the talent it needs. For the Cougars, getting back to an AAC title and, more importantly, to a big-time January bowl helps the Cougars fight off Power 5s for prime Houston talent.
Tom Herman got them to that promised land, and now Major Applewhite is hoping to punch his ticket. None of that happens if they don’t deal with South Florida on Saturday. A two-loss Houston eliminates itself from contention and probably has another holiday trip to Vegas or Fort Worth on tap.
South Florida represents a significant opportunity. The Bulls are good, but they’ve haven’t faced a team as offensively capable as Houston this season. They’ve also survived some close calls against some middling AAC programs. The beat East Carolina, Tulsa, and UConn by a total of sixteen points. Vegas takes notes, and they’ve tabbed Houston as seven to eight point favorites.
If Houston can prove Vegas right, they’ll leapfrog the Bulls, perhaps even moving into the top 25 and setting themselves up for another run for the big time.