Houston catapulted to No. 7 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 6 in the AP Top 25 coming off its impressive win Saturday over Oklahoma.
It’s not the College Football Playoff ranking, the first of which won’t drop Nov. 1. Nevertheless, the Cougars sit a stone’s throw from the magic number in the two most prominent barometers available this early in the season.
That’s a big deal. For context, go back to the inauguration of the Bowl Championship Series, a system designed to streamline the national title process. While it accomplished that goal insomuch as it ended conference tie-ins for the purpose of championship games, the national title picture became more exclusionary, not less.
To wit, Western Athletic Conference member BYU won a national championship in 1984, just 14 years before the first BCS season.
Twenty years after BYU’s title, the Mountain West Conference — essentially the WAC of the 1980s — headed an antitrust lawsuit that got the ball rolling toward a Playoff.
The conferences outside of the BCS power structure had spent the first six years of the system frozen out. That meant top-level teams from Tulane, Marshall and, coincidentally, BYU were all denied the revenue and the stage afforded by inclusion in a BCS bowl.
No coincidence that the first year after the antitrust suit was settled, Utah busted the BCS party.
“They put us on the map, especially the Fiesta Bowl in ’04, being a BCS buster,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Get on that stage, and not only be on that stage, but perform very well on that stage, and that really got the attention of the nation.
“That really was the springboard for our program,” he added.
Whittingham worked as defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer that season, taking the reins the next season.
Utah crashed the party again in 2008 with Whittingham at the helm, and this time more emphatically, concluding the only perfect record of the campaign with a two-touchdown defeat of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Whittingham said that game was “validation game…Letting people know we can play with the big boys. That got us a lot of recruiting advantages.”
Utah’s win and unblemished slate sparked further debate over the exclusionary practices of the non-BCS conference programs, with threat of another antitrust suit looming.
The Playoff that Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson proposed in the spring of 2009 was an eight-team tournament.
Houston rattling the cage of the Playoff in just its third year is landmark. The Cougars inch toward the vision supporters of the outsiders had when a playoff was proposed. Houston’s afforded the opportunity to prove its worth against “the big boys,” as Whittingham described.
That’s a positive.
Should Houston pull off this minor miracle — or any other Group of Five program, unlikely as that may be — the Group of Five loses its guaranteed bid into the Cotton Bowl.
If Houston makes @CFBPlayoff, it means Group of 5 is not guaranteed spot in another New Year’s 6 bowl, which this year would be Cotton
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) September 6, 2016
That’s a negative.
A minor quibble, maybe. After all, were Houston to miss the Playoff — or any other G5, for that matter — the Cotton Bowl’s a guaranteed option. That’s more than the BCS offered, even after the 2004 antitrust suit.
However, the guaranteed Group of Five bowl bid, whether it’s the Cotton, Fiesta, Peach or Orange Bowl, isn’t adhering to the same principles as other New Year’s Six bowls.
Consider last year’s Rose Bowl. When Big Ten champion Michigan State made the Playoff field, the Rose Bowl took Iowa to fulfill the classic Pac-12 vs. Big Ten matchup. The Sugar Bowl did likewise, taking Ole Miss and Oklahoma State for an SEC vs. Big 12 pairing.
That’s great! When the sport moves further away from its traditions every year in the pursuit of a singular mission, any commitment to the game’s history is a positive.
But the rift growing between the Brave New World and college football’s history pales in comparison to the chasm widening between Power Five and Group of Five programs. The New Year’s Six isn’t just about additional revenue, though extra money doesn’t hurt.
The platform and the recruiting Whittingham described mean more competitive teams around the nation. A better product at more programs is a positive for the sport.
Houston is positioning itself for a Playoff run; awesome. The Playoff was initially intended to be an accurate reflection of the championship picture, and Houston’s proven itself worthy over the last season-plus-one of that spot.
If the Cougars step up, though, the proverbial glass ceiling separates Boise State, San Diego State, Western Michigan…any other Group of Five that could benefit from the stage.