The Houston Cougars exploded on to the scene a year ago under the leadership of Tom Herman, who made an immediate impact on the culture, recruiting and record of the football program. One year in, Herman had secured a conference championship and a New Year’s Six Bowl win, defeating the Seminoles to finish eighth in the final poll of the year. Their near-perfect season was marred by a single loss, as the UConn Huskies pulled off the upset on their home field. Expectations were through the roof to begin the 2016 season, as the Cougars opened with a top 15 ranking. Led by quarterback Greg Ward, Jr (John Tyler High School) on offense and defensive tackle Ed Oliver (Westfield High School) on defense, an undefeated season and playoff push wasn’t out of the question.
After dominating no. 3 Oklahoma in the opening game of the year and rolling through the first handful of games this season, the Cougars have looked incredibly mortal the past two weeks in dropping a road matchup at Navy and escaping Tulsa at home by the slimmest of margins. While Ward has been as good as advertised, he threw two interceptions against the Midshipmen, another against Tulsa, and is only one off his total from a season ago. Though they are only allowing 19 points per game overall, they’ve given up 40 and 31 respectively the last two weeks, and haven’t had quite the aggressiveness we saw early on.
The margin of error is so small for the Group of Five programs, and a single loss can certainly derail a successful campaign. But unlike a season ago, the Cougars have marquee matchups remaining of their schedule this year, with the highly anticipated meeting with no. 7 Louisville at home still upcoming and a now intriguing battle with one-loss Memphis on the road to close the 2016 campaign. If Houston wins out, an at-large bid is certainly in play. But with Boise State and Western Michigan climbing the polls as they pile up wins, a second defeat could spell doom, even if it is the out-of-conference variety.
The Cougars will have time to get their defense back on track and fix the turnover issues that have plagued them the last two weeks, as they travel to Dallas to take on an SMU team that has struggled mightily without Matt Davis. Though the Ponies are coming off of a bye, they don’t have the talent to compete with a Houston team that should have plenty of motivation to make a statement. UCF has improved over the course of the season, but Houston will certainly be a heavy favorite on their home field. That leaves only Tulane waiting between the Coogs and Lamar Jackson coming to town, and while that sounds a lot like trap game material, UH should dispatch them with ease. The Cougars will face a must-win scenario against the Cardinals should a playoff berth be the goal, and after last year’s surprising success, it is certainly the standard. There truly is no margin for error with two versions of Broncos hot on their heels.
Ultimately, Houston is too talented and too well-coached to drop a second AAC game, though they will likely be challenged by Memphis late. And should they beat Louisville, it will be nearly impossible for 14th ranked Boise or 20th ranked WMU to catch them, as neither program will face a ranked opponent for the rest of the season. So, to answer the question, Houston isn’t in trouble… yet. But their season will rest on a single game.