This is no longer just a good story. It’s still that, I suppose. But Houston’s rapid ascent into college football’s elite—a habitation reserved for a select few and a place unwelcoming to newcomers—is something more now.
Beating Florida State in a bowl game was fun. The little guy had his day. Fans were acquired. Momentum was gained. Houston, powered by Tom Herman—one of the best young coaches in college football—became a thing.
There was a ceiling, though. Or so we thought. We love the little guys in small doses because that’s the only environments that allow them to thrive. Many assumed Oklahoma, coming off a College Football Playoff berth, would restore order.
But on Saturday, that was not to be. The little guy grew larger. The ceiling was ripped off.
As a double-digit underdog, Houston beat Oklahoma, 33-23, in NRG Stadium, a short bus ride from campus.
The score could have been worse, too. A late Houston fumble on an attempted exchange from Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who was otherwise brilliant, allowed Oklahoma to score a touchdown on the subsequent drive and close the deficit to 10.
Outside of that, Houston was dominant. The defense was active and made Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, the ultimate improviser, uncomfortable throughout.
The offense came up with big play after big play. It converted on nine of 18 third downs and mustered yardage when it had to.
And then there was Oklahoma’s missed field goal that Brandon Wilson returned 100 yards for a touchdown. The senior executed a lovely bit of footwork to stay in bounds:
This was a collaborative effort—a collection of execution and assignment football. It was a glimpse into the future, as true freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, one of the nation’s most coveted recruits in the class of 2016, became an instant star.
Those around him flashed, too.
“They played really hard, and they played for each other,” Herman told ESPN’s Tom Luginbill following the game. “There’s a genuine love on this football team.”
It was a showcase for the Big 12, the conference Houston is a candidate to join as soon as next year.
This is separate battle, of course, although it’s impossible to gloss over the impact a win of this nature—over one of the conference’s biggest brands—might have on this athletic-department beauty contest.
On Saturday, Houston's vice president of athletics, Hunter Yurachek, confirmed with reporters that Herman would receive a $5 million bonus if Houston joined a Power Five conference.
While nothing should be assumed, it would probably be best to get all necessary wiring logistics out of the way. Just in case.
These things, of course, will be decided in time. They are football-related, to a degree, but they have nothing to do with this specific team beginning a very specific journey.
This offseason, Herman barred all Peach Bowl gear from the facility. He didn’t allow the players to even use those words. He didn’t want his roster falling in love with what happened against Florida State and losing sight of the future.
“I think the biggest fear I had was that this team did so many things,” Herman told me in June. “I don’t want the guys to dwell on that success. I struggled with it.”
Herman confided in his former boss, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, hoping to find the appropriate balance. One can’t ignore the successes, and one wouldn’t want to. They show hard work can pay off.
But each team has to have its own identity. One cannot transition seamlessly from one season into the next.
However, it’s abundantly clear—after only 60 minutes—Houston has re-established something special.
What that means is to be determined, but the Cougars have put the sport on alert. Since the College Football Playoff was conceived, we have wondered what it would take for a team outside one of the five major conferences to receive serious consideration.
A win like this is the kicker. It is necessary. For Houston to have a shot at the playoff, it needed this game.
With the entire football world wondering if what it was seeing was real, wondering if this encore was possible, Houston delivered a first impression and an emphatic statement that will live on.
It conquered the giant. Again. And while beating Florida State in a different season shouldn’t have an impact on how this team is viewed, it’s hard to separate it.
There will be difficult games to come, of course. Louisville, a team garnering small playoff buzz of its own, is on the back half of the schedule. There are road trips to Navy and Memphis, which are nothing close to guarantees. And then there are opponents such as Connecticut, which served as Houston’s lone hiccup last season.
No matter the schedule, an undefeated regular season is a tremendous task. It’s a lot to ask from anyone, especially a team that will now be expected to win its games by a certain margin.
To say the hard part is over would be a disservice to the physical and emotional grind that comes over the course of a season. This is a collection of 18- to 22-year-olds who will be pushed, likely more than once, before the College Football Playoff becomes a real conversation.
There will be ample time to have this conversation if and when it’s warranted. Just look at the calendar.
And yet, it’s hard to ignore the significance of what transpired on this Saturday. If Houston is to live out this dream season, its victory over Oklahoma will serve as the catalyst of it all.
People are already talking about it. They will continue to do so. If and when things get serious, the conversations will intensify.
Regardless of what happens next, Houston's days of being overlooked and underappreciated are dead. Little guys don’t do these sorts of things on these sorts of stages.
This is something different and bigger in scope. It is the start of something to be determined.
“The culture from day one was ingrained,” Herman said, moments before he darted off camera to celebrate with his team. “There was no complacency. I absolutely love these guys. And now we have to go get ready to play another one.”