Theoretically, there should be no pressure on Houston to win—at least, not on a national stage. The Cougars have a solid local recruiting base, and figure to be competitive in the American Athletic Conference on an annual basis. But climbing up past the fringes of the top 25? Party crashing the major bowls? Neither should be expected for a Group of Five program.
After Houston's dream season in 2015, though, expectations have been raised, maybe unfairly. In coach Tom Herman's first year, the Cougars finished 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl; this season, fans and college football observers alike naturally are wondering what he can do with even more time to mold his team.
Oh, and 2016 is also a bit of audition for Houston to join the Big 12, and all of the Power Conference riches it promises.
If the Big 12 ends up expanding, Houston will face competition from Cincinnati, which was a power conference member as recently as three years ago; BYU, which has enjoyed sustained football success and has a national following; and Connecticut, which is a national basketball power. Still, the Cougars have a lot going for them: they're a perfect geographic fit and, more important, they have the support of University of Texas and Texas government officials.
Given that the Big 12 is perceived to be run by Texas and Oklahoma, that support is a big deal. However, it would help Houston a lot to have another uber-successful season on the field. In the world of college football, recency bias reigns supreme, and if the Cougars can repeat as the Group of Five conference representative in the New Year's Six bowls, and/or sneak into the College Football Playoff, that would make them an extremely attractive expansion candidate.
So what are Houston's chances?
The Cougars already are recruiting like a power conference program. The future looks bright. Being the best mid-major in college football is a perfectly reasonable, attainable goal. But topping last year's magic? That might prove tougher.
As good as Houston was in 2015—the Cougars also beat Louisville—the advanced stats say Herman's team was lucky perform so well. The F/+ ratings ranked Houston No. 26 nationally for the season—very solid, but behind AAC rival Navy, and fellow Group of Five teams Western Kentucky, Toledo, and Bowling Green.
On the other hand, the Cougars got better as the year progressed, and knocked off No. 16 Navy (52-31), No. 20 Temple (24-13), and No. 9 Florida State (38-24) to end the season. With star quarterback Greg Ward and most of Houston's wide receivers and offensive linemen returning, it's hard to say the Cougars don't deserve some preseason hype.
Houston could be better this year than last, and finish with a worse record. The Cougars could be very good, but not good enough. That's how luck works, and it tends to even out over time. Fair or not, anything short of a second dream season could leave the public viewing Herman's program as a one-hit wonder, and fan perception is an important part of conference expansion.
There is no secret formula for a Big 12 invitation. Houston could miss out on an invite even if it makes the New Year's Six, and it could get one even with a down year—conference realignment is driven more by television and business concerns than anything that happens on the field. (See: Rutgers, joining the Big Ten.) Still, if there ever was a season for the Cougars to put their collective best foot forward, this is it. No pressure, Tom Herman.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.