Year one for Tom Herman as a head coach could not have gone too much better than it did in 2015. In his first job as a head coach, Herman led the Houston Cougars to a 11-1 record in the regular season, a victory in the first American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship Game and a Peach Bowl win over Florida State as the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six. And to think this year Houston fans are thinking things could go even better in 2016.
As far as Group of Five programs go in 2016, Houston may be in a category of its own going in, as the Cougars enter the season ranked No. 16 in Athlon Sports' preseason Top 25. This is a deserved status as Houston returns dynamic offensive machine Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback, who figures to prosper in his second year under Herman. Houston also will add four-star running back Duke Catalon to the offense, which figures to lighten the load for Ward and the team returns seven starters on offense. The pieces for another run through the AAC are in place, but Houston is setting the bar higher and thinking bigger.
Houston is now what Boise State was under Chris Petersen, but the Cougars are in a much better situation moving forward than the Broncos could have ever dreamed. This is not a slight at the Boise State program, but more a reality of the seat Houston occupies in the current landscape of college football.
With one spot in the New Year's Six reserved for the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion, Boise State will continue to be in the conversation, but Houston is the best team playing in the best conference among Group of Five conferences. The American had a huge 2015 season with Memphis scoring a win over Ole Miss, Navy and Temple each cracking the Top 25 in the polls and Houston doing its thing on the field the way they did. No Group of Five conference could compare, especially the Mountain West Conference. For the time being, the AAC has a big leg up in the competition so long as it has a conference champion with at least 10 wins at the end of the season. The margin for error in every other conference is very small.
This does put the pressure on Houston though, and this is something we have not seen this program have to deal with under Herman. Houston played some big games in 2015, but the Cougars were never looking to live up to any hype last season. This year, everyone will be gunning for Houston, and nobody will take this team for granted.
Houston kicks off with the kind of game that can determine whether or not it will merely be playing for the Group of Five spot in the New Year's Six or, perhaps, something even bigger that no non-power conference program has managed to play for. The 2016 season begins at NRG Stadium in Houston against defending Big 12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma. These are the kinds of games Boise State capitalized on to hit the ground running (See: Virginia Tech, Georgia, Oregon). Houston appears to have the tools needed to hang with Oklahoma, and maybe even take the Sooners down. A win against Oklahoma, and Houston will manage to raise the bar just a little higher and give fans a legitimate reason to start thinking about the College Football Playoff before playing a second game.
It may be rushing to get to that kind of conversation, but it will almost certainly be one worth having, especially if Houston can manage to score a second straight win against Louisville a few weeks later.
We have seen Little Engines try to prove they could hang and contend for a national title before, but none have managed to climb the hill all the way for one reason or another. Houston, with early wins against Oklahoma and Louisville, will bring back to life the talk about Cinderella making a run; only this time it could be a realistic scenario thanks to extra access with a four-team playoff. Boise State never had that chance. Neither did TCU nor Utah nor Northern Illinois (or Hawaii). But Houston could, even if it still is to be considered a long shot.
The challenge for Herman and Houston will be staying grounded. Maybe Oklahoma drops Houston back to Earth a little harder than expected. Whatever happens in the season opener, there will be plenty of time to either keep up the momentum or rebound, and neither will be that easy. The great unknown with Houston is how these Cougars will handle the pressure.
Given what we know about Herman and the Cougars though, they should be prepared as well as any to deal with whatever is thrown their way. This makes Houston a true wild card to take seriously, if it beats Oklahoma.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.