5 reasons Houston is a serious playoff contender
Prior to the season Houston was considered the favorite to earn the New Year’s Six Bowl berth that goes to the best Group of 5 team. However, even during the offseason there were some talks about the Cougars being a dark horse candidate to make the College Football Playoff as the first team to ever earn a berth outside the Power-5 conferences.
The offseason discussions were not unfounded since Tom Herman’s team beat top-10 ranked Florida State in the Peach Bowl last year. Nevertheless, their first game against Oklahoma was looming large as a threat to their chances of making it to the playoff, especially since they lost several starters from last year, mainly on the defensive side of the ball. With the Oklahoma game being behind the Cougars now, we take a look at the five factors that make them serious playoff contenders.
1. Greg Ward Jr. has the “X factor”
We have been high on Ward Jr. for a while now, calling him the best dual-threat quarterback in the nation last year. The Cougars signal caller is extremely dangerous with his legs and rushed for 21 touchdowns in 2015, which is only three shy of what Navy QB Keenan Reynolds achieved, who was considered the best running quarterback in the nation. In addition, he rushed for 1,201 yards (excluding sacks), which led the Houston offense ahead of running back Kenneth Farrow. However, when talking about his running skills, Ward Jr. is not a one-trick pony at all. He can gain yards on designed runs just as well as on scrambles following broken plays. While he ran for 529 yards on the latter, he earned 733 yards on designed run plays and forced 40 missed tackles on 168 total carries last year.
What differentiates the Houston quarterback from other running and scrambling signal callers is his passing skills. The threat Ward Jr. presents through the air makes him unpredictable and a nightmare for opposing defenses. While accuracy is often an issue for dual-threat and running quarterbacks, the Cougars playmaker ranked 12th in the nation last year in adjusted completion percentage – taking drops into account – with 76.6 percent, ahead of Jared Goff and current NFL starters Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott among others. The only game Houston lost in 2015 was against Connecticut when Ward Jr. could not start in the game; however, if the Cougars can keep the quarterback healthy, there is a good chance they will not lose a single game until bowl season.
2. Ed Oliver is an immediate contributor
Nose tackle Ed Oliver is turning heads on the field just as much as he was off the field. Most experts were surprised, to say the least, when Oliver committed to Houston in March 2015 and became the first five-star recruit to commit to a Group of Five school since 2008. As such, expectations were naturally high for Oliver and it was anticipated that he would get playing time early to prove what he can do.
What was not expected, however, is the type of impact that he has had in his first two games. While he played only exactly two thirds of the Cougars defense’s 105 snaps so far, he is their highest-graded defender by a wide margin at this point. Furthermore, he is leading Houston in defensive stops (tackles that represent a loss for the offense) and has been an enormous force against the run. He leads all defensive tackles in the nation with at least 20 run snaps with a run stop percentage of 29.2 percent, meaning that he makes a defensive stop on nearly one third of the run plays when he is on the field. As a comparison, last year Alabama’s Jarran Reed led all college defensive tackles with a run stop percentage of 13.4 percent. Right now the freshman is providing a much needed boost to a Houston defense that lost several key contributors over the offseason.
3. Steven Taylor is a Swiss Army Knife on defense
While Oliver is a force in the Houston defense, he is not alone as a key contributor in the middle of the unit. Linebacker Steven Taylor also seems to be coming to form after a weaker performance against Oklahoma. Last year Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts ranked second among all college linebackers with 74 defensive stops and while we do not expect Taylor to replace that production, he can help the defense in different ways due to his unique skill set. The Cougars linebacker is one of the most versatile college player at his position as he graded positively in all three facets of the game – pass rush, run defense and pass coverage – in 2015.
While Taylor had a weaker game against Oklahoma, there is no reason to believe that he will not have another terrific season and, although against lesser opposition, he already dominated in Week 2 against Lamar. The numbers this year once again demonstrate the versatility of Taylor and how Houston is taking advantage of this. While he’s lined up mainly as an inside linebacker, Taylor has also played snaps at outside linebacker, slot cornerback and even safety in his first two games. However, the way his roles were divided in his plays is what truly shows his versatility: he played 33 snaps defending the run, 31 snaps in coverage and 30 rushing the passer. These snap counts show that the Cougars are willing and ready to use Taylor in all sort of roles, which makes him an unpredictable factor in the middle of the defense.
4. The Cougars have gained experience in key games
Over the past 13 months the Cougars have played several big games under head coach Tom Herman and won all of them. They faced five different ranked team since Herman was appointed as head coach and they beat every single one of them. It started with Houston beating No. 21 Memphis 35-34 in a nail biter before dominating No. 15 Navy in a 52-31 win to clinch the division title. This was followed by the Cougars easily beating No. 22 Temple for the conference title and then upsetting Florida State in the above mentioned Peach Bowl. Finally, they started the 2016 season with probably their biggest win so far by comfortably beating No. 3 Oklahoma 33-23. Consequently, it is not likely that Houston will crumble come November and December when the stakes get high and people start calling them a popular pick for the College Football Playoff.
5. Houston has a favorable schedule
Houston has most likely already played its toughest opponent in the season opener against the Oklahoma Sooners. While the remainder of the Cougars’ schedule does not contain any very weak teams and most of them could get a surprise win on a given day, Houston is considered the favorite for all but one of its remaining games. That one will be played on November 17th against Louisville and Heisman hopeful quarterback Lamar Jackson. While the Cougars beat the Cardinals in Week 2 of the 2015 season at Louisville, that was a completely different Louisville team and Jackson was also a different quarterback. However, playing this key game towards the end of the season at home could be a huge advantage for Houston and should make for an exciting matchup. While there is a good chance this contest will determine the Cougars’ playoff faith, they cannot look past any of their opponents, including Cincinnati tonight, since every team will be extra motivated against them as they are clearly, once again, the team to beat in the Group of Five.