Can Houston Break the Glass Ceiling?
September 12, 2016 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
By the end of the year, there's a chance that a major glass ceiling will come tumbling down in a sphere that millions of Americans follow. Many have tried to crack it before, but due to tradition, public perception, unfair systems and a number of other reasons, it hasn't quite happened yet.
I'm of course talking about Houston's bid to become the first team from a non-power conference (or non-automatic qualifying league) to truly compete for an undisputed national championship in college football.
Yes, there's BYU's national title from 1984 won out of the WAC, but that came by defeating no ranked teams after September 1 and beating a 6-5 Michigan team in its bowl game. Washington and Florida also had potential claims to that year's title.
In the BCS and playoff era, when the final trophy of the season is awarded from an actual game and not from poll voters, all but one team to compete in the title game or the four-team playoff has been a member of a major conference. That single exception, Notre Dame in 2012, is arguably the sport's historical flagship program.
Programs like Utah, Boise State, TCU, Central Florida all broke into and won New Year's Day bowl games against major conference champions. But only the Horned Frogs in 2010 were really on the precipice of a national title shot in early December should Oregon or Auburn had lost their final games that year.
The playoff's inclusion of four teams makes it more likely that a team from the Group of 5 can eventually break through. But there's still a different feeling about this Houston team after it handled then-third-ranked Oklahoma, 33-23, in Week 1 coming off a 12-1 season in 2015 in which the Cougars beat three Power 5 conference teams.
In short, we don't have to answer the common question, "Can they compete with the big boys?" because they've already answered the question. Unless November opponent Louisville can take down both Florida State and Clemson two of the next three Saturdays, Houston probably won't be an underdog for the remainder of the season.
It should go without saying, but Houston can't finish in the top four if it loses a game. Not even major-conference pandemonium like all five major-conference champions having two losses would likely save the Cougars. Houston can obviously pull off the feat, but it's going to be tougher than people think.
For starters, there's a possible trip-up this coming Thursday for Houston when it travels to Cincinnati on a short week. Star QB Greg Ward, Jr. missed Saturday's shutout win over middling FCS school Lamar with a shoulder injury, and his status is unknown for this week. Cincinnati doesn't have the talent Houston does, but the Bearcats were still projected to be a bowl team out of the American Athletic Conference prior to the season.
However, the Cougars' conference schedule (which, of course, it has no control over) may ultimately hurt it if they stay undefeated when the Playoff Selection Committee rankings begin to get released every week. Houston isn't currently slated to play preseason AAC East favorites South Florida or Temple, or 2-0 East Carolina, which stunned NC State on Saturday.
Houston stands likely play one of those three in an AAC title game, but just that one game (against a possibly unranked team) may not matter much to the committee when stacking the Cougars up against a one-loss SEC or Big 12 team that's beaten four ranked teams.
But as blindingly obvious as it sounds, the hardest part about Houston going undefeated will be not dropping a game somewhere along the line. It's incredibly difficult to go 13-0 before the bowl games even with Alabama and Florida State's talent. Houston, despite being a deceptively physical team for a program and coaches with an air-it-out, high-scoring reputation, doesn't have that talent level. It also lost its one game last season to 6-7 Connecticut.
One-game dips in performance happen in college football as a matter of course, and it doesn't make a team like Houston that much worse, if at all. But due to the lack of any margin of error in the Group of 5 conferences, the Cougars have to be perfect.
In an ideal world, this predicament will only apply to Houston for another year or two, as the Cougars are by far the most obvious candidate for one of two Big 12 expansion spots. For this year, however, Houston may be as good as anyone in the country. Whether it ends up in the playoff will rely on the committee and if the Cougars can run the table.