The Houston Cougars labored before dispatching Cincinnati last night. Their 28-point, fourth quarter barrage converted a 16-12 deficit into a commanding 40-16 win. Though it is only Week 3, much of the discussion surrounded Houston’s playoff credentials.
Part of that is ESPN’s premature promotional horn being sounded after last year’s dismal ratings. But, that’s a very real discussion to be having. Houston must go 12-0 for consideration. Hopes will hang on every weird fumble in a tight game.
Houston going undefeated would be the season’s most interesting storyline. It would force the playoff committee to make a tough, near impossible decision, one that could have existential implications for the four-team model and the committee itself.
Power 5 conferences run the playoff. The playoff exists to promote and to enrich the Power 5 conferences. The committee will have an overwhelming inclination to ensure winning a Power 5 conference matters, selecting the four best conference champions. That will be an issue every season for Notre Dame. That could be a major issue this season for Houston.
Houston does have two big games. They beat Oklahoma (Preseason No. 3). They still play Louisville (Current No. 10). But, both those teams could lose this weekend playing top five teams.
One could see both Oklahoma and Louisville finishing with single-digit wins, denying Houston a marquee scalp. One could also see the American falling off and beating Memphis and Navy on the road not meaning quite what it would have in 2015.
The choice may not be a relatively straight-forward choice between 13-0 Houston and one-loss Oklahoma or a two-loss Pac 12 champ. The choice could be 13-0 Houston vs. a 12-1 Ohio State who also beat Oklahoma (on the road), would have the better overall résumé and would provide a definite playoff ratings boost.
Screwing Houston in that scenario could make clear sense. But, it would also come at a major cost to the playoff’s legitimacy. FBS requires at least a whiff of fairness. All teams must at least appear to be eligible to win for college football to award a “national title.” An undefeated Houston will have met every conceivable benchmark for an opportunity.
They will have gone 13-0. They will have established themselves (which shouldn’t be relevant but still will be) last year beating Florida State in a major bowl. They will have followed that up beating a Top 5 Oklahoma to open the season. They will have spent almost the entire season ranked in the Top 10. Their proven coach has already won the college football playoff as a coordinator.
If Houston does not get into the playoff with those qualifications, it’s hard to conceive a scenario where a Group of 5 team ever would. Not picking Houston would exacerbate calls for an eight-team playoff. Of course, so would selecting Houston, and leaving out two Power 5 conference champions.
Leaving out Houston would cause even more Group of 5 schools to question the elaborate cost overruns they endure to sustain FBS football. The Cougars are not just a threat to the college football playoff. Their absence would be a threat to the entire collegiate athletics industrial complex.