Houston might make it messy for the CFB Committee in 2016, or the Cougars could fall flat with a tougher schedule than many think. How will we go with our NCAA football pick?
When we last left the Houston Cougars on a gridiron, they were busy wrapping up a second 13-win season in five years with a very impressive 38-24 whipping of Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The victory over the Seminoles came as 7½ point underdogs, prompting the AP voters to put the Cougars No. 8 in their final poll.
One close loss as a touchdown favorite at UConn after a 10-0 start kept Houston from at least forcing the College Football Playoff voters into a quandary a year ago, and Tom Herman would love to force their hand this time. He just might have a team capable of doing it.
The Cougars are a juicy 50/1 on the NCAA football odds to win it all, putting them in the same general area with Auburn, Georgia, and TCU. Herman's team is definitely thought of as the class of the American Athletic Conference, and if it is going to prove that and contend nationally, we'll know early on the schedule.
Sooners In Bayou City For Season Opener
Rankings from last season suggest the Cougars have one of the easiest FBS schedules in the country, teams on this year's fixture going 71-79 in 2015. This year certainly doesn't begin on the easy side, however, with the Oklahoma Sooners coming to Houston to meet the Cougs at NRG Stadium. Oklahoma is the overwhelming favorite in the Big 12 race, and 9½-10 point favorites to beat Houston in that Week 1 dandy.
The Cougars follow that with what should be a walk-thru at home against Lamar. That might be a good game to take what should be a lot of points since Houston might be in a look-ahead spot with a trip to face Cincinnati five days later to kick off Week 3 of the college football schedule. The match with the Bearcats could be a preview of the AAC Championship.
September closes with a shot at revenge for last year's lone defeat as the Huskies come to Houston for the Cougars' second Thursday night game in the initial four weeks. October begins with a toughie at Navy, then home against Tulsa. The 'easy' part of the schedule really comes after that, closing October with SMU and Central Florida before opening November with a bye week and Tulane in Houston. A late non-con game vs. Louisville is critical, as is a trip to Memphis to close out the regular season.
Key Subtractions, Additions On Both Sides Of Ball
That slate leaves Houston with arguably its three toughest conference opponents on the road, not to mention the opener vs. OU. Houston is commanding 9-9½ in win column wagering, depending where you shop for your NCAA football futures, and it's both quick and easy for me to find 3-4 losses to play the 'under' with a +100 return.
Herman and his two coordinators, Major Applewhite on the O side and Todd Orlando on D, have some really, really good players returning, like Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback. Houston also got an influx of talent in transfers, tailback Duke Catalon plus Ra'Shaad Samples to join a solid wide receiver corps. The most important transfer to beef up the offense will be tackle Na'Ty Rodgers after the O-line lost four from 2015.
It's the same situation on defense where the front 7 should be strong but the DB's untested after the top three left. Houston's front was tough to run on a year ago, and there's a lot of upperclassmen coming back plus top recruit Ed Oliver who figures to be in the early rotation down low. How much improvement the defense makes in pass coverage is one of the biggest questions entering the season.
If one thing is for certain, it's that another 13-1 season would send Herman out of Houston and to the biggest payday of his life. He might still be in demand after going 8-4 or 9-3, making my free college football pick on the 'under' 9.