Houston coach Tom Herman indicated in October that he thought the American Athletic Conference had separated itself from the rest of the Group of Five. “It's not even close to me in terms of competition,” Herman said. “There's the Power 5, there's us and then the 'Group of Four,' if you will.”
Herman should get a chance to back up that claim when he leads Houston against a top-tier Power 5 squad. By beating No. 22 Temple 24–13 in the AAC title game, the No. 19 Cougars secured their status as the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of Five, earning them a matchup with an at-large team in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.
Based on the way it played against the Owls on Saturday, you have to like Houston’s chances no matter who it faces. The Cougars carved up one of the nation’s top defenses—the Owls entered Saturday ranked 16th in points allowed per game and 11th in Football Outsiders defensive S&P+—behind 236 total yards from Greg Ward Jr. and a rushing attack that gained 5.8 yards per carry. The junior quarterback completed 11 of his 21 pass attempts for 88 yards while adding 148 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Owls did what they could to limit Ward, but he has a knack for making defenders look silly, and he didn’t disappoint Saturday.
After Houston had already forced two turnovers and scored twice to take a 14–0 lead in the second quarter, Ward danced around a pack of would-be tacklers before dashing 47 yards for a touchdown.
Ward was shaken up on another touchdown run in the third quarter, but he stayed in the game to help the Cougars snuff out Temple’s comeback bid.
Saturday’s win validates Houston’s status as the best team outside the Power 5 conferences. This could have been an even better season for the Cougars had they not fallen to UConn 20–17 on Nov. 21; they may have drawn playoff consideration by finishing undefeated.
Still, Cougars fans can look forward to more success. Herman, who had been linked to several Power 5 openings in recent weeks, signed a new five-year contract Friday. Not only should he keep the Cougars in the hunt for another conference title in 2016, his return will help the program hang on to a 2016 recruiting class that ranks first in the Group of Five and 37th nationally by Rivals.com. Herman may jump for a bigger job at some point down the line, but Houston’s prospects are bright for now. It has a promising young coach who just led the Cougars to the best season in recent program history, and the Big 12 has to like what it’s seeing, too.
Houston is a great team, all areas. Think this program couldn't compete in the Big 12 if given the chance?— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 27, 2015
Setting aside possible future conference realignment, Houston was the class of the American in 2015, and it showed that on Saturday. Now the Cougars have a chance to demonstrate they’re up for an even tougher task in a marquee bowl game.