There are five pillars for the Houston football program run by Tom Herman. One of them is to go 1–0 every week, which makes it a pillar crafted from unalloyed coach-speak but a pillar nonetheless. The long-range goals set by the Cougars’ first-year head coach extend only so far as the American Athletic Conference championship game: Herman’s team will set out every year to win the league, and that is that.
But what about after that? The pursuit of the Group of Five bid to the New Year’s Six bowl games? Or the creeping possibility that one of these American Athletic Conference teams might nudge their way into the College Football Playoff?
“We don’t talk much about it,” Herman said in a phone interview this week. “It would be hard for me to fathom through six or seven weeks, wherever we’re at. It’s so early, and all the things that need to go right seem so far down the road. It won’t be near as unfathomable in three or four weeks if we still have one or two of us left standing with no losses.”
Should this fall continue along a specific trajectory, Herman may well have to put on his fathoming cap. Not long ago, the American was a league that appeared to be constructed by closing your eyes and pointing to 12 spots on a map of the United States, with its members then held together by scotch tape and chewed gum. Now it has three ranked, undefeated and formidable clubs—No. 18 Memphis, No. 21 Houston and No. 22 Temple—who boast wins over Power Five conference teams and have the chance for more. It is a conference threatening to test the structure of the playoff and the committee’s idea of what qualifies as a worthy team in just the second year of the event.
For that to happen, so much more needs to, well, happen. But Memphis’s defeat of Ole Miss on Saturday gave the league the flashpoint it needed to begin a discussion it is dying to have: An undefeated AAC champion, this year, would have a highly intriguing resume. And if that can’t pique the committee’s interest when lined up against one- or two-loss Power Five teams, then what exactly is anyone doing here?
“What we don’t want to do, when it comes to something as important as this, is have a dividing line in college football,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in a phone interview. “First of all, [the AAC teams] have to do it. It may not happen. But I’ve said all along, if it did happen, let’s give the committee a chance. Let’s see what they do.
“If something like [a snub] happened, there would be certain questions we would raise. Right now I’m confident [the committee] will be fair and they’ll do a good job.”
This is indeed no manifest destiny. But Aresco was more than happy to entertain the what-ifs earlier this week because no one pounds irrelevant teams or leagues with hypotheticals.
Last weekend, Aresco stood on the fringe of the end zone at Memphis, contemplating the Tigers’ early two-touchdown deficit to Ole Miss and wondering what would come next. He wound up enjoying a result that seemed to validate the league as a whole while catalyzing interest in the possibilities.
“Probably the best I’ve felt professionally in three years,” he says.
We needn’t rehash the scramble that brought programs as disparate as Navy and Tulsa under the same conference banner, but it’s worth recalling one of Aresco’s own pillars he tried to sell to the group that emerged from realignment chaos. He asked them to compile challenging schedules, to seek home-and-home matchups with bigger-conference peers, even if those matchups resulted in short-term setbacks.
Nothing revolutionary about that, really. But it was ambitious in the sense that it was a plan aimed at substantive progress, not skin-deep success. It was a plan that targeted playoff worthiness from the start, as outrageous as that might sound given the context of the American’s existence. “I urged them to play the toughest possible schedules, but be smart about it,” Aresco says. “I said we have to play the best of the best. We’re going to take it on the chin a bit, especially early on. But we’re going to get better. We’ll have toughened ourselves.”
So Memphis owns wins over Kansas and Ole Miss. Temple has beaten Penn State and plays Notre Dame on Oct. 31. Houston won at Louisville and gets Vanderbilt at home on Halloween. None will get extra credit for trying to schedule well; the selection committee will note the relative feebleness of some of those opponents. But if one of the three AAC unbeatens stays that way, it will have defeated those Power Five schools plus one or two of the other top teams in the American that defeated those other Power Five schools.
After that, any playoff chances will hinge on how many blemishes Power Five contenders accrue as well as the perception of just what the other AAC wins are worth. “I honestly think there’s more parity in this league than either of the two Power Five leagues I was in previous, the Big Ten and the Big 12,” Herman says. “By that I mean, Team 12, whoever that is, is still going to have close to, if not equal, talent as Team One or Two. There are games on Alabama’s schedule, there are games on Ohio State’s schedule, within their own conference, that something disastrous is going to have to happen for them to lose that football game. I don’t know that’s ever the case in the American.”
Merely having this debate is a step for the league. And there should be an urgency to pounce on the opportunity at hand because there is a real threat that the steps could become stumbles due to turnovers that don’t show up in box scores.
The coaches of the American’s three best teams—Memphis’s Justin Fuente, Temple’s Matt Rhule and Herman—could be on many wish lists for schools seeking to fill vacancies. Aresco calls that chatter “flattering,” but it’s also challenging. While the commissioner underlines the increasing commitment his schools are willing to make to football—and by extension the ability to incentivize coaches to stay—the reality is that until such time as the American is the annual favorite for at least the Group of Five bid, it may not offer enough. That threatens stability, and stable programs are always best positioned to make attention-grabbing runs. “There are a lot of pierces in place that will enable us to retain coaches,” Aresco says. “Where we don’t, I think we’ll be able to attract other really good coaches.”
Easier said than done, which goes for just about everything else in the American. These playoff hopes are just that, and they’re in the nascent stages. Memphis, Houston and Temple may devour each other in November and December and save the selection committee some trouble. It is “kind of single-elimination” in the league, as Herman puts it, where it only takes one defeat to extinguish a team’s highest aspirations.
But it would be fascinating to see the AAC shine a klieg light on the playoff selection committee and its inclinations, to determine if this is truly a playoff for everyone or just the annointed few.
“Let’s see if we do it,” Aresco said. “If we do it, we should be in that conversation.”
Each week, The Walkthrough will talk to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. For Week 8, we venture to the Ivy League, where a Princeton ground game that ranks 24th among FCS schools (199.6 yards per game) faces a Harvard run defense that is the fourth-stingiest against the run (72.6 yards allowed per game).
James Perry, Princeton offensive coordinator: “We play as fast as we can, and it also requires us to play a lot of people, including the running backs. Joey Rhattigan is an every-down back, a strong kid. He can get a lot of yards after contact, he catches and protects well. He’s probably from that standpoint our top guy. Dre Nelson was the 60-meter champ in the Ivy League—he’s a small guy, but he catches the ball really well, and he’s fast. And then we have two young guys (DiAndre Atwater and Charles Volker). This Saturday, we’ll try to get it to all four guys at various points. They know for us to play fast we have to be efficient. They have to be able to run inside the tackles, even if their niche is speed. When we do run the ball inside, you have to be efficient. You have to get four yards for us. This defense is not exotic. Harvard plays a lot of [defensive] linemen, and they’re very uniformly good. They’ll sub in four linemen en masse, and it’s not that big a downgrade from the four they just took out. We’ll have to match that with our own depth—we try to play eight or nine linemen. They’ll be playing a lot of guys, and we’ll be playing a lot of guys. That’ll probably be the biggest indicator for overall success on the day, is how that battle unfolds. When you want to be efficient, the interior guys have to get movement.”
Scott Larkee, Harvard defensive coordinator: “We’re hardly ever at a numbers disadvantage—we’ll outnumber the box. And we’ve got a real veteran group. At the linebacker level, those guys have played a lot of football, they’ve seen it all, their reactions are good and they play with great fundamentals. In the secondary, it’s really easy to line things up—we’re rarely out of position. We’re going to keep it contained and let the defensive line do their work in there. I never think of it as attacking [the run]. With our personnel here, as a play-caller, I never feel we’re going to get run over. We’re going to be stout. We don’t have slant and angle, zone pressure, run blitz. We don’t need to do that to be able to stop a run attack. We basically just need to be in position. Tempo is one thing. Being lined up and not making a mistake as it comes to the line quickly. And then it’s the way (Princeton is) able to execute. As the years have gone by, it’s a little less helter-skelter. They have a real good balance between being simple and doing a lot formationally, stuff that can be confusing. They’ll rip some long runs because the defense is misaligned. They’ll split out offensive linemen, they’ll have a reverse option to another quarterback who’s got a pass option down the field. They do a lot. They give you a lot to get ready for.”
• Temple at East Carolina: Poll voters are pumping the Owls’ tires just before a rugged test on the road. If Matt Rhule can keep Temple hungry for this, he earns his check for the week and then some.
• Cal at UCLA: Who’s the defensive coach again? The Bruins have given up 124 of their 166 points allowed this season in three conference games. The Golden Bears have only given up 82 in three league outings.
• Memphis at Tulsa: A huge program win followed by a road game on a weird night? Never has a letdown scenario been so clear. The Golden Hurricane’s ninth-ranked passing offense means the Tigers could pay dearly for being a half-step off.
• Kansas State at Texas: The win over Oklahoma on Oct. 10 was important for Charlie Strong. Proving it wasn’t a fluke two weeks later—while possibly building to a four-game win streak with Iowa State and Kansas to follow—would be massive.
• Pittsburgh at Syracuse: The Panthers have a top 20 defense and one loss—on a 57-yard last-second field goal to unbeaten Iowa. Pat Narduzzi’s team is ascending and could be very, very relevant very soon.
• Clemson at Miami: After the Tigers scored 43 and 34 points in their last two games, I have a weird feeling Shaq Lawson and the defense will have to carry the freight this week.
• Toledo at Massachusetts: The Rockets are the only non-AAC team with something to say about the Group of Five situation. The Minutemen hung with Notre Dame for a bit and have the nation’s No. 15 pass offense, so no easy task here.
• Virginia at North Carolina: Hey, it’s the other ACC team that lost a close game early but has gone on a run since. The Tar Heels should extend their win streak to six while posting a fifth blowout in that stretch.
• Indiana at Michigan State: The best thing that could happen to the Spartans after their miracle Gift Six at Michigan: playing at home, against a team gutted by a mammoth collapse a week earlier.
• Duke at Virginia Tech: Michael Brewer returns to quarterback the Hokies. There’s precious little chance for an ACC Coastal title by now, but he can help preserve the Frank Beamer era with a win here.
• Tennessee at Alabama: Yes, yes, yes, the Ole Miss game, etc., yes. There’s some voodoo curse going on there or something. Because otherwise the Crimson Tide’s consistency is remarkable. When are they playing LSU again?
• Texas Tech at Oklahoma: Could this be close? Maybe? The Sooners took out their anger on Kansas State last week. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders stared into the abyss (aka nearly losing to Kansas) and will never want to do that again.
• Texas A&M at Ole Miss: The Aggies will be the latest team to wear the badge of being good enough to beat anyone but, hey, congrats on the third-place finish in the SEC West.
• Western Kentucky at LSU: Leonard Fournette will probably run for 6,000 yards, but this game rests on the Tigers defense’s ability make sure Brandon Doughty and the nation’s No. 3 passing offense don’t keep up.
• Utah at USC: With total chaos enveloping the program, the Trojans gave Notre Dame a scare on the road. With the chaos a bit more settled, and playing at home, will they upend the Pac-12 paradigm?
• Ohio State at Rutgers: J.T. Barrett gets the start, and we’ll soon see if that galvanizes the Buckeyes to dominance or if the quarterback uncertainty muddles the whole year.
• Washington at Stanford: The Cardinal have scored 194 points in conference games alone. Among Power Five leagues, only TCU (202) has more.
The hair-raising end
Let’s be honest: This is a very unappealing weekend. It’s a college football weekend, but it doesn’t seem like a college football weekend. Unless someone does something really surprising, it’s somewhat lame and forgettable and disposable. But we’re stuck here, just waiting until it’s over, before we get back to the real thing.
It’s Week 8. It’s the Nelson of college football weekends, everybody.