Houston entered the 2016 season as the College Football Playoff crasher du jour. It will leave NRG Stadium and make the six-mile hike back to campus with legitimate playoff hopes.
That's what a 33-23 takedown of Oklahoma, the preseason Big 12 favorite, will do for you.
The Cougars are still a dark horse to make the playoff four, make no mistake. There's a postseason ceiling for Group of Five programs, and it's been immovable thus far. Houston must -- and there is no wiggle room here -- finish the season undefeated. The top of the college football landscape will also need to cannibalize itself. We're talking multiple two-loss conference champions here.
Then, and only then, can Houston's playoff hopes be fully realized. This is, in large part, due to its schedule. While UH will have the opportunity to take down a top ACC team in Louisville, the rest of its slate simply doesn't compare to the Power Five programs it will fight against for a spot.
|Sept. 10||vs. Lamar||Should be an easy win.|
|Sept. 15||at Cincinnati||First road test, but Bearcats struggled vs. Tennessee-Martin.|
|Sept. 24||at Texas State||Houston beat the Bobcats 59-14 in 2015; this year shouldn't be different.|
|Sept. 29||vs. UConn||This was Houston's lone loss in 2015 and the Cougars will be looking for revenge.|
|Oct. 8||at Navy||Early candidate for AAC Game of the Year. Cougars should be on upset alert.|
|Oct. 15||vs. Tulsa||Tulsa should be able to put up points to make this at least a little interesting.|
|Oct. 22||at SMU||The Mustangs are still rebuilding under Chad Morris. Should be a big win.|
|Oct. 29||vs. UCF||The Knights are coming off a winless season. Yeah, this is going to be bad.|
|Nov. 12||vs. Tulane||Cougars shouldn't have issues here, unless they're looking ahead to Louisville.|
|Nov. 17||vs. Louisville||Easily, this is the toughest remaining game and could be nationally relevant.|
|Nov. 25||at Memphis||Win or lose against Louisville, Houston can't afford a hangover game here.|
Still, it's tough to walk away from the Cougars' win unimpressed. This wasn't a fluke victory that required trickery and a little magic -- though an unreal catch by receiver Linell Bonner and a kick six didn't hurt. This is a team that lived up to the hype.
After a summer of insane hype, Houston is the team that met the bar and OU is the one that threw up on itself. Didn't see it coming— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) September 3, 2016
Houston went man-on-man, hat-on-hat, against the Sooners and dominated them. Its defense flew in the open field and made spearing hits all day.
The receivers consistently got open down field, torching OU's secondary time and again. If it wasn't for a handful of overthrows by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., the score could have been more lopsided.
But the story of the game, and the most surprising part of the beating, was that Houston pushed Oklahoma around up front. Specifically, the Coogs' defensive line made running difficult for a couple of the best rushers in the country. Pushing things to the outside didn't work for the Sooners, either. Freshman defensive lineman Ed Oliver, Houston's first five-star signee, was a grown man shedding blocks and getting to the ball.
Ed Oliver is gonna win AAC or Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year someday.— Max Olson (@max_olson) September 3, 2016
This is not a fun coincidence of an undermanned team overachieving against a team who didn't want to be there. This was Houston out-coaching and out-playing a team that's supposed to have better talent. But it was the Cougars that looked every bit as talented, if not more so, in some spots.
That's what makes Houston a legitimate playoff contender: This is a team that really can play with anyone, as it proved in last year's bowl win over Florida State.
Yes, there's an entire season left to be played. What happened Saturday guarantees nothing. If we've learned anything about college football players, it's that they're never the same from week to week. Houston needs to take care of business in the AAC and beat an explosive Louisville team on Nov. 17th. That's no small task.
Do that, though, and this will easily be a top-10 team when it counts, if not more.
Calling Houston an underdog is a bit misleading, at least in the traditional sense. The Cougars were an underdog against Oklahoma and certainly would be against, say, Alabama. However, they're not an underdog in their ability to compete at the highest level.
But they still carry that label and college football, for whatever reason, has never been kind in its view of underdogs. In that way, college football is different from college basketball, which cherishes the chaos of March Madness.
It will be interesting to see how Houston is viewed moving forward through the season. Will they be loved? Hated? Either way, this team will be polarizing as long as it's in the playoff discussion.
College football is more interesting with a team like Houston in the mix, though. After beating Oklahoma, we're going to hear a lot more about them.