Cinderella role expires, so Houston refocuses on AAC title, New Year's bowl

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Rain is the great equalizer. It makes passes slip through waiting hands. It wobbles quick feet. It loosens steady grips. It negates speed. Erases the edge in athleticism. Evens the playing field.

The rain alone didn’t beat Houston here on Saturday; Navy beat Houston. The rain merely played a role, and a minor one at that: Navy beat Houston with some help from the rain, but thanks in most part to a ball-control offense, a punishing ground game, two key touchdown passes and three takeaways.

It was simply in the rain that the Midshipmen washed away Houston’s quest for the College Football Playoff — once alive, if faintly, and now sunk. The Cougars' only hope was for perfection, an unscathed run through the regular season complete with wins against Oklahoma, Louisville and others.

That’s gone. One month into this season, after an offseason in the spotlight, the Cougars will become invisible.

There’s no room in college football for Cinderella. This sport belongs to the powers, not the upstarts. And Houston was an upstart despite its lofty ranking, running second fiddle to the handful of Power Five programs bracketing the Cougars’ place among the top five in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll.

The 46-40 loss to Navy is the equivalent of a torn-off Band-Aid — undeniably painful, but less excruciating in the long run.

“It should hurt. You should let it hurt,” said Houston tight end Tyler McCloskey. “You never want to feel like this. And the only way you’re going to stop feeling like this is you’re going to remember it and make sure it never happens again.”

It could have been worse. As it was, an unbeaten Houston team would have needed anarchy to reach the four-team Playoff field. The Big 12 has cooperated, but others have not: the SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten have at least one, if not several, teams in the thick of the Playoff race.

Admittedly, college football is chaos and anarchy in pads. It’s not that crazy, however. Losing to Navy simply streamlines the process: Houston can now focus on its more realistic goals — winning the American Athletic Conference West Division, winning the conference as a whole and reaching a New Year’s Six bowl for the second year in a row.

That a single loss evaporates Houston’s championship potential “might be unfair,” said defensive Cameron Malveaux, “but that’s just the way Power Five and Group of Five football works. We try to kind of throw that aside and focus on our conference championship.”

It should be easy for the Cougars to refocus. The team had seen its stock rise since topping Oklahoma early last month; how could they not? But since his arrival nearly two years ago, Tom Herman has preached the same metrics for success — winning the American and making an access bowl. The Cougars never spoke about a national title, even if others did.

And all good teams lose, even Alabama. So instead of winning the national championship, or instead of even reaching the Playoff, the Cougars will quietly take aim at back-to-back 13-win seasons — a feat achieved by just two programs, Florida and Florida State, in the modern era of college football.

“This one hurts,” Herman said. “But we still have everything in front of us. Our goal, as it is each and every year, is to win our conference championship and go to a New Year’s Six bowl game. We’ve got an opportunity to go continue that journey.

“I think any time you lose a football game you’ve got to look in the mirror as a head coach and ask yourself why. The last time this happened to us the next few games on the schedule we came out and played like gangbusters. So I expect that we’ll respond and do it the same way.”

There’s no reason to think this loss, or any loss, will sideline Houston’s quest for a January bowl. This did happen a year ago: Connecticut pulled off the shocker in late November. That defeat propelled Houston to victory against ranked opponents in Navy, Temple and Florida State, the latter in the Peach Bowl.

The Cougars’ confidence isn’t shaken. “The plan that we have to prepare each and every week, when executed properly, obviously is a really good one,” Herman said. “We’ve only had this happen to us twice now,” he said, before needing to ask: In 19 games, 20 games? (Yes, in 20 games.)

Herman’s record is 18-2, good enough to make him the most desired coaching target in college football — enough so that one blueblood, Texas, put out messages about Charlie Strong’s job security so heavy-handed that Herman must have received the message.

Herman’s inevitable flirtation with Power Five programs will hang over Houston for the next two months, likely serving as the dominant story line surrounding this team through the end of the regular season. There’s always something.

“We train for pressure,” said freshman running back Dillon Birden. “Stuff happens. We’ve got to bounce back and get a win next week.”

But Houston can still have an outstanding season. So what if Houston won’t compete for the national championship? Only one team lifts the crystal football amid confetti; the rest watch. Every goal the Cougars set in the preseason remains in play. In that sense, even one-loss Houston remains in elite company.

“We’re going to use this as motivation, use the hurt, the pain to never feel this feeling again,” said Herman. “This feeling is awful. Losing is awful. But we’ve got to make sure that they understand we’ve got all of our goals ahead of us.”


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