Houston has been a delightful college football story. The No. 6 Cougars entered Saturday 5-0, and the combination of their Week 1 win against Oklahoma and an eventual meeting with Louisville gave them a strong Playoff angle. If Houston could go 12-0 in the regular season and win the American's championship game, the Cougars would be likelier than not to make the top four. But the margin for error for a team outside the power conferences is whisker thin.
Now, that's almost definitely over. Houston lost on Saturday at Navy, 46-40, falling behind by two touchdowns in the third quarter and failing to dig out of the hole. The Cougars generally outplayed the Midshipmen and had better yardage numbers, but three turnovers led directly to two Navy touchdowns and a field goal. Like many coaches, Houston boss Tom Herman loathes giveaways, and he's made winning the turnover margin a central part of what UH does.
But it didn't work out this week. The Cougars made a couple too many errors to be a Navy program that, even without record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds this year, is highly competitive. Lots of these were avoidable, like the errant punt snap that skidded through Houston's end zone for a fourth-quarter safety that made an eight-point deficit two scores. Houston tried to come back late, but they didn't have enough time.
The result is that Houston is highly unlikely to make the Playoff.
The race to finish in the top four is incredibly crowded.
If you're a Power 5 team, you'll surely make the Playoff by going undefeated. If you're Houston, that'll probably get you in, but you've still got to answer questions about not playing in as difficult a league as everyone else who wants the same slot. To be automatically in the discussion, Houston had to win every game it played.
Now Houston's got a tough sell. The Cougars are clearly quite good, but we can liken their Playoff case to a high school student applying to colleges. Houston plays in the AAC, so it's not exactly taking AP courses. But getting straight As without ever failing anything (i.e., losing a game) could still get the Cougars into a great school (like the Playoff!).
The only high-quality opponents on UH's schedule are Oklahoma and Louisville, plus maybe South Florida. If Houston would've aced the rest of the schedule, the Playoff might have let the Cougars in.
But a loss to a merely solid conference opponent is the kind of blemish that will probably be crippling.
For Houston to now make the Playoff would require the Cougars not to lose another game, and they'd also need a bunch of Power 5 teams to lose at least two games. That's because a one-loss team from the American isn't getting into the Playoff over, for instance, a one-loss team from the SEC. It's the nature of the beast.
Herman has built up a terrific program, but there's now a lower, harder ceiling on the Cougars' 2016 season.