Houston's Focus Isn't on Oklahoma, Which Makes for a Scary Underdog

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 29, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 05:  Head coach Tom Herman of the Houston Cougars raises the AAC Championship Trophy after defeating the  Temple Owls at TDECU Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Houston, Texas. Houston won 24-13.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Back in June, with the Texas air in a full sauna and the stands at TDECU Stadium empty, a bright message illuminated from the video board.

"H-TOWN TAKEOVER," was blasted in all caps in broad daylight. It was as if the same message had been sitting there for the past six months.

It was exactly 80 days before Houston played a game that could ultimately change the way the program is viewed forever. Eighty days before the team will take a handful of buses on a 7.4-mile ride south to NRG Stadium for Week 1. Eighty days before the Cougars face Oklahoma in their season opener.

Houston Football Career Day—a Bachelor-like job interview session with more than 20 local businesseshad arrived. Instead of wearing uniforms and cleats, this collection of ordinary dragon slayers donned new suits (a gift from the university), sparkling dress shoes and bright red bow ties.

In the coming weeks, there would be time to game-plan for Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and a diabolical two-headed rushing attack. There would be ample hours spent in the film room looking at ways to expose what will be an unseasoned Sooners front seven.

But in the moment, the most pressing task was applying just the right amount of force to each handshake.

Houston celebrates a Peach Bowl win.
Houston celebrates a Peach Bowl win.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There was reality to this exercise—one that becomes abundantly clear after watching it unfold for a few minutes. The vast majority of this room will not play football professionally. Those two hours of interviews will soon be a reality.

These were reasonable-looking human beings with reasonable builds and reasonable attributes.

This was not Alabama. Or Ohio State. Or Florida State. Or Oklahoma, for that matter. This was not a collection of genetically engineered experiments that were seemingly constructed to play football in some laboratory.

The Houston Cougars looked fascinatingly normal.

Perhaps that's what makes Saturday's matchup against Oklahoma, a program that has produced 80 NFL draft picks since 2000, so intriguing.

In that same time, Houston has produced 12. Three of those 12 came last season and are no longer with the team.

The starting quarterback, Greg Ward Jr., the catalyst of it all, is generously listed at 5'11" and 185 pounds on his university bio. Ed Oliver, the best physical talent the roster has seen in some time (maybe ever), is still months away from his 19th birthday and has yet to play in an actual game.

Historical and visual evidence is working against Houston in Week 1. Despite beating Florida State by two touchdowns the last time we saw the Cougars in the Peach Bowl, few will pick them to validate the win with a victory over Oklahoma.

Of course, such picks will come with the appropriate praise—what a great story, what a great coach, what a great season—but it will stop short of proceeding any further.

"We're not supposed to win that game," Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. "That's just a reality. Our guys know that they're a very good football team and we need a high level of preparation going in. The coaching staff is respected, the players are respected and the tradition is respected."

It's not quite David vs. Goliath. David doesn't beat Florida State by two touchdowns; Goliath, while No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll to start the season, typically doesn't feel this vulnerable.

But it's something along those lines, at least in terms of perception.

One carries the flag for the Big 12. The other is desperately seeking an invitation to join the conference in a sudden wave of expansion—owning public endorsements from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Greg Fenves, the president of the University of Texas.

One continually finds itself hovering around the Top 10; the other delivers a 10-win season every now and then.

After winning 13 games in Tom Herman's first year as a head coach, capping a sensational season with a win over a perennial power, it's hard to view Houston as "the little guy." But the sport cherishes this role—the new face capable of crashing through the impenetrable, if only for a day.

In Houston's case, it might be something more. This particular installment of "the little guy" is supercharged.

Houston accepting the trophy at the Peach Bowl.
Houston accepting the trophy at the Peach Bowl.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

From a sheer marketing standpoint, Oklahoma vs. Houston is delectable: traditional vs. untraditional, playoff team vs. playoff dark horse, Bob Stoops vs. Tom Herman, Big 12 member vs. Big 12 hopeful...all on the very first Saturday.

Neither program has done much to add hype to a situation that doesn't need much more. "This has been like any other offseason," Herman said when asked about the preparation.

As part of this preparation—not just for Oklahoma but also the season itself—Herman banned all Peach Bowl gear from the facility. Heck, he even banned the two words.

He doesn't want players dwelling in the triumphs of the previous year, one of the most successful seasons in program history. The idea of complacency bothered him. On the opposite end of the preparation spectrum, he didn't want his team preparing an entire offseason for one game.

 "There is no next week," Applewhite added. "Every day is a new deal."

But to say Oklahoma is just another game is false. No one within Houston would possibly package it that way. No reasonable football fan would believe them if they did.

This is not Tennessee Tech—the opponent the Cougars opened up with in 2015. There's a weight to this that cannot (and should not) be ignored.

"I think about it a lot; I'll be quite honest with you," senior linebacker Steven Taylor said about the matchup with the Sooners. "It motivates me in every workout. My dad was a big OU fan, and he always wanted me to go to Oklahoma. As a kid, I grew up watching them. It'll be really cool to go up against them. I cannot wait.

"It feels like the championship. The environment is going to be epic. I just want to win."

Linebacker Steven Taylor and cornerback William Jackson III complete the tackle.
Linebacker Steven Taylor and cornerback William Jackson III complete the tackle.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Yancy McKnight, Houston's director for football sports performance and Herman's right-hand man, has spent the offseason deflecting such inquiries. Not just from the media, but also in his everyday life.

At his sons' flag football games, Oklahoma was the most popular talking point from fellow parents still searching for the team's ceiling.

He understood why they asked. But with each question, he offered up the same response.

We'll see September 3.

While spending a few days around the facility in June, there was not one mention of the Sooners, unless a player or coach was prompted with a question.

Even then it was clear the significance of this matchup from the outside—from those of us who are paid to package the intrigue in mass—far outweighed what was going through the minds of most who were preparing to take part in the actual moment.

"Maybe it sounds cliche or coach talk," McKnight said from his office. "But you don't see any OU signs in here, do you? The 2 o'clock lift group has to have a great day. The morning group was outstanding. We keep building those bricks."

The quarterback of this team laid many of these himself. Heck, he's built his own wall.

Ward Jr. weighed 160 pounds his senior year of high school and was a wide receiver in the eyes of many of the coaches who evaluated him.

He is not only Houston's most important piece—accounting for 38 touchdowns and more than 1,100 yards rushing last season. He is also a symbolic centerpiece. He does not have an NFL body, an NFL arm or NFL buzz. But at this level, under this coaching staff, in this system, he has become one of the nation's most intoxicating players.

Quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

"Houston was my only visit," Ward said. "I came here and felt at home. I committed as an athlete as a senior, but they said they'd give me a shot at quarterback when I committed."

His playing style is chaotic by design, which is what makes him so difficult to stop. Scouts will not drool over his measurables, but here in Houston, against Florida State and against basically everyone else he played against last season, he was perfectly diabolical.

"There was never a day when I was thinking about playing Oklahoma or Cincinnati or whoever else we have," Ward said on his offseason. "It was always about getting better."

Even with the player departures, it feels like Houston has done that this offseason. Beyond returning a plethora of snaps and reps, it added one of nation's best freshmen.

Oliver was the nation's No. 6 player in the class of 2016, according to 247Sports. Beyond the sheer power of the addition from a roster sense, Oliver also represents what Houston hopes to become.

A win on the grandest stage in college football's opening weekend will resonate with others such as Oliver who hold scholarship offers from the regular juggernauts.

It will send a message to the rest of the country that good football—really, really good football—is played outside the five conferences that typically gobble up the most airtime.

It doesn't matter how well they fill out their suits or how many NFL prospects are scattered throughout the roster. It doesn't matter what the majority of these players will be doing four years from now. As we've seen before, this world doesn't always have to play by those rules.

And, yes, because it's just so easy to get ahead of ourselves, a win over a Top Five team would resonate with the 12 College Football Playoff selection committee members taking in their first sample size of a new season.

In this regard, Oklahoma is hoping to do the exact same. A victory over Houston in 2016 would make a mighty fine impression. It could be the start of something spectacular.

And that's where the whole David vs. Goliath theme comes undone.