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Success Brings Distractions to No. 24 Houston Cougars

(Photograph by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

It’s all happening very quickly at the University of Houston.

Given the current state of affairs in college football, that’s really not a surprise. But back in August, when preseason camps began across the country, no one would have predicted that the Cougars would be 5-0, nationally ranked, with a rookie head coach being mentioned as a candidate for other prominent jobs that came open in midseason.

Welcome to Tom Herman’s world. Welcome to Houston’s world.

Herman is barely into his plan to turn around Houston’s program. His first game as a head coach was on Sept. 5.

But as we said, things are happening fast. The Cougars, 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference the past two seasons under Tony Levine, have risen to the upper tier of the league in just five games. And, on Tuesday, Herman was facing questions about his future.

Randy Edsall was fired at Maryland over the weekend. Steve Sarkisian’s tenure at Southern California ended abruptly on Monday. Steve Spurrier, the “Ol’ Ball Coach,” announced his resignation at South Carolina on Tuesday. A whirlwind such as that in the world of coaching leads to lists of candidates. And Herman, the former offensive coordinator at Ohio State, has become very list-worthy.

That can get out of hand faster than a California wildfire. So Herman, who signed a five-year deal with Houston last December, responded quickly. Herman, the Houston Chronicle reported, said it’s all just speculation.

“We’re going to make sure it’s not a distraction because it shouldn’t be,” Herman said after Tuesday’s practice. “We live in a period in our great American history where anybody and everybody can get in front of a keyboard and type whatever they want and speculate on whatever they choose. Unfortunately anybody and everybody can see it. It’s a shame we live in that generation, but we do.”

Herman may be in his first season as a head coach, but he understands the game. He has been a college coach since 1998 and the path to Houston ran through Texas Lutheran, Texas, Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice, Iowa State and Ohio State.

And thanks to the success with the Buckeyes from 2012 to the stunning national championship last season, Herman’s name has moved onto the hot list. He also was named the Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top assistant last season.

At the AAC media day in Newport, R.I., just over two months ago, people were stopping, staring and point at Herman. “This guy is the next big superstar in college coaching,” some whispered. “This guy will land a major job in a few years,” others said.

While it may be happening fast – and way ahead of schedule –there’s no way to predict the future. Not yet. Herman will have to deal with this.

Houston is coming off a 49-28 victory over SMU on national television last Thursday. That propelled the Cougars into the Associated Press poll at No. 24. It is the school’s first appearance in the AP poll in four years.

Another unconventional week lies ahead for Houston. The Cougars play at Tulane on Friday. After another road game, at UCF on Oct. 24, the Cougars have three straight home games and don’t hit the road again until Nov. 21 when they play at Connecticut.

A victory over Memphis (5-0, 2-0 AAC) at home on Nov. 14 would put Houston in terrific shape for winning the AAC West and earning a spot in the first American Championship on Dec. 5.

Herman has said that the “mandate” at Houston is winning conference championships. It is clear the Cougars are already on that path.

“I’ve got a bunch of guys here that have poured their heart and soul into winning a championship, and beating Tulane is literally the only thing on my mind,” Herman said Tuesday, according to the Chronicle. “That and playing for championships in the months of November and December.”

American commissioner Mike Aresco is in his third season of looking for a “flagship” team in the conference’s football alignment. UCF’s domination of the standings the past two years had put the Knights in that position but now George O’Leary’s team has lost seven straight. It is the longest tailspin since 2005.

Houston’s name and brand is much stronger and gives the Cougars an advantage that grows with every victory. When you consider Houston’s history (victories, bowl appearances, and bowl victories) as an independent, in the Southwest Conference and Conference USA – dating back to 1960 – it doesn’t take much imagination for fans to envision Houston as that flagship team in the American.

It’s not just the 5-0 record and the No. 24 ranking. Houston ranks ninth nationally in rushing defense (95.8 yards per game) and eighth national in running offense (287.4 ypg). Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leads Houston in both passing and rushing and is sixth nationally in total offense (371.0 ypg).

“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” SMU coach Chad Morris said of Ward. “He threw the ball well against us. He’s a threat with his legs and his arm. He is doing a very good job. I’m very impressed.”

Ward was the AAC offensive player of the week. Teammate Steven Taylor, Houston’s junior linebacker, was the defensive honoree after recording eight tackles, four for loss and three sacks against SMU.

Those are the ingredients for a successful program and Herman has already put them in place. Back on media day, he said his first goal was to bring the student body, alumni, and the city of Houston back to Cougars football. That’s a challenge and last Thursday was an example. While Houston played SMU, the Houston Astros were beginning their pursuit of an American League championship with Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Royals in Kansas City.

There are many distractions in the big city. And with all the Houston skyline shots in the Cougars’ media guide, the importance of the city cannot be underestimated.

When Herman talks about his ties to Texas football and the recruiting base he has built over the years, his commitment to the Cougars is clear. But if he has the opportunity to leave for a more prominent program in a Power Five conference, that commitment could understandably be challenged.

Herman may have to weigh that against the opportunity to become the flagship program of the AAC, just one step below Power Five status at this time.

It’s a situation worth watching.

And it is happening very quickly.

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