Dana Holgorsen has to know the optics at Houston this week. It looks like the Cougars' coach is giving up on the 2019 season.
In the cutthroat, hyper-competitive world of college football, it's also hard to blame him. Holgorsen just took one of nation's best quarterbacks and redshirted him for the remainder of the season essentially because the Cougars have started 1-3.
Is Holgorsen tanking? It sure seems that way. It may also be brilliant considering what's always eventually at stake.
His job, for starters.
Houston football, Holgorsen and his quarterback, D'Eriq King, became a national story this week. After that 1-3 start, it was decided King and wide receiver Keith Corbin, both seniors, would take the rest of the year off, redshirt and come back fresh in 2020.
It's absolutely allowed.
In 2018, the NCAA changed its rules at the urging of American Football Coaches Association. With the change, players could appear in up to four games and still retain that year of eligibility. Previously, if a player merely appeared in a game, he wasted a year of eligibility.
At the time, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said the new redshirt rule would be "fun." Minnesota's P.J. Fleck said it was the greatest rule the NCAA passed in the last 20 years.
The original intent was to allow coaches to play freshmen late in the season and/or in bowl games to get experience. It has become something far from that at Houston.
"I think probably the NCAA is upset with me right now," Holgorsen said.
Judging by the reaction to putting his best player in storage for the rest of 2019, Holgorsen doesn't much care. King has had four offensive coordinators in four years. Holgorsen is his third head coach.
"That takes a toll on anybody," King said.
"It sucks," Holgorsen said. "We've got a chance to rectify that."
"Four games is four games, and we can use it any way we want to use it," he added. "We need to get over that 'redshirting' is not a dirty word."
Holgorsen said there may be more Cougars who redshirt.
"We've got way too many guys on this football team that are not in position to be fifth-year seniors," he said.
So, clearly, this is an elaborate roster management play. The coach is essentially creating a 2020 roster that will be loaded with experience.
Just don't ask him about 2019. It is basically dead and gone after four games with losses to Oklahoma, Washington State and Tulane.
Once again, technically, Holgorsen is not doing anything wrong. Former Kansas State coach Jim Dickey redshirted a load of upperclassmen in 1981. The next season, K-State went to its second bowl game ever.
At the time, the move was considered tactical, even charming for the lowly Wildcats. There were more than a few raised eyebrows this week regarding Houston at the Lead1 Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Lead1 is the organization that represents the 130 FBS athletic directors.
"It's probably the kid being frustrated [and] Dana saying, 'We're not that good. Let's self-preserve for next year,'" said one Power Five AD of the move.
Holgorsen won't dispute that. Addressing reporters Tuesday, he laid out the timeline.
Last Friday, after the crushing last-second loss at Tulane, King and Corbin visited Holgorsen in his office.
"D'Eriq was pretty upset," Holgorsen said. "I presented every option that was available."
One of those options was essentially walking out on the 11 other seniors in the starting lineup, those who -- at least in some way -- were counting on King for their best-possible final season.
"I think it has unintended consequences," said Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork. "What about the guys who are working their tails off [this season]?"
"It's not how the rule was intended," said West Virginia AD Shane Lyons, chair of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee.
Holgorsen did not return a request for comment regarding the seniors being left behind. Houston billionaire mega-booster Tilman Fertitta also did not comment.
The Cougars will now be quarterbacked by sophomore Clayton Tune (five total games in two seasons) through the remainder of 2019. Many expected Tune to redshirt this season; Tune being thrust into a playing role is another byproduct of this Holgorsen-King decision.
The 1-3 start tied for Houston's worst since 2001. Asked whether that impacted the King, Holgorsen said, "We all have enough common sense when it comes to that."
In other words: Are you kidding? Of course, it made a difference!
King accounted for 50 touchdowns last season (36 passing). Four years ago, the Cougars were playing in the Peach Bowl under Tom Herman having beaten Oklahoma and Florida State.
Anything that gets Houston closer to that combination was deemed worth trying. It's a sketchy practice, for sure, but when you're shooting for New Year's Six bowls and overall relevance, sometimes coloring outside the lines doesn't matter.
And maybe it shouldn't in this case.
The statistical equivalents of King -- a rising senior quarterback coming off 50 total touchdowns in their junior year -- are Kyler Murray (2018), Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson (both 2016).
Holgorsen must consider his job, too. He has a bunch of good will banked at Houston having returned to the place where he worked as an assistant in 2008-09. He is also that rare Power Five coach who went down to a Group of Five job without being fired.
With this strategy, this first season has become more of a honeymoon. That is if Houston can sell it to fans and boosters who bought season tickets anticipating being able to watch King.
"Once they understand it and you get a chance to explain it, everybody understands," said Houston AD Chris Pezman. "You're talking about young men that haven't had the opportunity to redshirt. ... That's an opportunity for them to have another year of college and get closer to graduation."
The move goes against the basic ethos of coaching -- never give up, work hard, team ahead of individual.
"There's still two-thirds of the season to go," Bjork said. "After four games, things have to be pretty dynamic for you to make that decision."
With King, Houston remains a threat in a very deep AAC despite the poor start. Without him, what kind of message is Holgorsen sending?
Bjork makes it sound like something like this was inevitable. While at Ole Miss, he was a member of the NCAA Transfer Working Group that gave us the transfer portal. Whatever you think of the, there is no question college athletes have more freedom these days.
"Because we got so liberal on the [transfer] waiver process, it opened the mind of the student-athletes," Bjork said.
King says he isn't entering the transfer portal or eventually transferring. We'll have to take him at his word.
Week 5 has now becomes a date to be highlighted on the college football calendar. Clemson's Kelly Bryant transferred after four games last season when he lost the starting job to Trevor Lawrence. Alabama's Jalen Hurts didn't. In fact, he got a huge ovation when he came out for warm ups for Alabama's fifth game last year against Louisiana-Lafayette. Oklahoma State Jalen McCleskey opted out after four games last year, complaining after 167 career catches that he wasn't getting enough. In an ironic twist, McCleskey caught the winning touchdown pass for Tulane on Thursday against Houston.
None of those players took a redshirt year to preserve their eligibility at their originating school.
College football is a copycat game: schemes, formations, plays and now roster manipulation in the middle of the season. Houston's move came so suddenly this week that no other schools had a chance to copy it.
Just give it time.
"Wait 'til next year" has gained a whole new meaning.