Prior to 2021, the thought of a non-Power 5 program reaching the College Football Playoff was borderline blasphemous. That was before Luke Fickell and Cincinnati had a perfect regular season, which included a statement win in South Bend against Notre Dame.
What the Bearcats did last year was not only historic, but inspirational. Even since the playoffs were introduced in 2014, non-power programs have had a difficult time gaining the respect of the clandestine CFP committee. However, Cincy's dominance couldn't go unnoticed, and should set the precedent for other Group of 5 teams, including their own conference rivals.
Houston, who lost to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference title game, enters 2022 with their most talented roster in years. However, is it good enough to take down the defending conference champs? If they do, does that give them enough credibility to make a playoff push? Whatever the answer may be, the Cougars are must-watch TV this season.
Houston returns plenty of production from last year's 12-win squad this summer. Quarterback Clayton Tune is a fifth-year senior coming off an efficient 30-touchdown, 10-interception campaign. Another year of Tune paired with star wideout Nathaniel Dell (1,329 yards & 12 touchdowns in 2021) can only help the nation's 15th highest-scoring offense. Considering head coach Dana Holgerson's affinity for pass-first play calling, it's fair to say the Tune-Dell duo could be one of college football's best.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, running back Alton McCaskill suffered an ACL injury during spring practice. McCaskill's production as a freshman last year, which included over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns, will be hard to replace. Luckily for Houston, former Texas Tech transfer Ta'Zhawn Henry is up to the task at backup running back while USC transfer Brandon Campbell can take some snaps as a backup. If McCaskill can return late in the season (perhaps for the AAC title game?), then an already explosive group gets even more dangerous.
There are still questions on offense, chiefly on an offensive line that returns just two starters. However, continued growth amongst the returning players, as well as the arrival of four-star freshman Matthew Golden at wide receiver, should keep this unit amongst the game's best.
Houston fans may have even more reason to get excited over the team's defense, which surrendered the 19th-fewest points on average last season while garnering the sixth-most sacks. While some talent has left for the NFL, including 2nd round pick Logan Hall, the team has retained most of their dominant defensive line. The pass-rushing duo of D'Anthony Jones and Derek Parish is arguably the AAC's best, and an experienced back seven should give them plenty of time to get to the quarterback. Considering no other team finished in the top four in both passing yards and rushing yards allowed, it's fair to say Holgerson's Cougars have the best defense in the American.
The Next Cincinnati?
A veteran head coach, experience at quarterback, and a well-rounded roster. On paper, Houston shares many characteristics with the 2021 Bearcats. However, there's one big difference between the two: scheduling. This isn't to say the Cougars are playing pushovers. Games against UTSA, SMU, Memphis, and Texas Tech all have the potential to be looked at as quality wins, but opportunities to woo the committee are scarce.
Lost in the shadow of Cincinnati's playoff season is the fact that they went undefeated in 2020 as well. The reason they were able to make the playoffs the following season was their road win against #8 Notre Dame, arguably the most impressive regular season win in the country. Victories against #17 Houston, East Carolina and Tulsa made it impossible to deny that the Bearcats had faced tough competition, even in a middling conference.
Houston has a fairly reasonable path to an undefeated season. Is it likely? Probably not, but the same could have been said about Cincy. It will take some other contenders in the AAC, as well as a good season for one of UTSA and Texas Tech, to even move the radar towards postseason consideration. A matchup against either Cincinnati or UCF in the championship game could present the opportunity for a convincing win, but it requires one of the two being ranked firmly inside the committee's top 25.
The ingredients are all here for a deep Houston run, and it's hard not to look at them as AAC co-favorites with Cincinnati (and possibly UCF). Is that good enough for a playoff push? Unlike most Power 5 contenders, it's impossible to say that Houston controls their own destiny. It will take competitive seasons from the teams that are on their schedule to even move the radar, and even then, finding a 'signature win' or two will be paramount. Dana Holgerson's Cougars are ready to play with the best of the best, but is the rest of the AAC ready as well?