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How Tom Herman measures success and sets Houston’s game-by-game goals

Let’s talk to the Cougars’ head man about how his team charts its success and approaches the business of winning football games.

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NCAA Football: Navy at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After coordinating Ohio State’s offense to a national championship and then leading Houston to a 13-1 record in 2015, Tom Herman is probably college football’s hottest coaching prospect. His Cougars are the best team in the country outside the power conferences, and they're the favorite to win a second straight American title this year.

A big part of Herman’s success has been recruiting, which he’s so far done better than any Houston coach in history. Another is in-game management, as the Cougars last year won 13 times despite playing at about a 10-win level.

Herman is meticulously detail-oriented, and he’s drawn up a road map that Houston tries to follow to victory every Saturday. He shared some of that in an interview at AAC media days this week with SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey and Bill Connelly.

You can listen in full right here, or below from 17:25:

"We only have four goals on our plan to win," Herman told Godfrey and Connelly, "and none of them have a numeric value to them."

Goal: Play great defense

No one is reinventing the wheel here, but hear Herman out.

"That is everybody on the team," he said. "Offense, your job is to go out, take the ball, protect the football, make two first downs and then we’ll jog out the best punt team in America. We’ll punt it, 44-yard net punt, we’ll jog out the best defense in America, hold ‘em to three-and-out and flip the field and go do it again. You can’t win championships without playing great defense."

He added later, "We play great defense with special teams and offense as much as we do with offense."

Goal: Win the kicking game

"We need to be dominant in the field position battles, basically." Herman said.

This strategy has basically worked. Houston was fifth in the country in average defensive field position last year, with opponents taking the ball at their own 26-yard line. That was despite Houston being 43rd in drive efficiency, only averaging 40 yards per punt and having a relatively average placekicking game.

Goal: Win the turnover battle

Still nothing creative, but the rationale is not hard to grasp.

"If you win the turnover battle, you’re gonna win more than you lose — and quite a bit more than you lose," he said.

Goal: Score touchdowns in the red zone

"We don’t kick field goals," Herman said. "We go for it on fourth down a bunch in the red zone, because the stats will tell you that the chance to get seven is worth the reward of just three, especially when you’ve got a good defense."

Herman’s not just blowing smoke here. His team scored 5.2 points per scoring opportunity last year, 10th-best in the country. That’s defined by Connelly as any drive in which a team gets a first down inside the opponent’s 40-yard line.

Fourth down conversion tries are inherently risky business. But Herman said they work for the Cougars, in large part because his defensive assistants don’t fuss about it.

"You'd be surprised how many staffs I've been on or seen where the head coach will tell the offensive coordinator to go for it on fourth and 4 or from the 11, and they don't get it," Herman said, "and the defensive coordinator's over there cussin' 'em out."

The Cougars have what Herman called an "aligned staff," and if Greg Ward Jr. and the offense give the ball up going for a touchdown, his defensive assistants don’t mind the field position.

Herman is an analytical thinker, but he doesn’t like every stat.

Godfrey and Connelly asked Herman what stat he looks for on a box score immediately after a game, and which stat he doesn’t.

"First numbers I look at are turnovers," Herman said. "Second numbers I look at are yards. Yards don’t matter. The score is all that matters."

The score worked out in Houston’s favor 13 out of 14 times last year. The turnover margin was second-best nationally, at plus-1.5 per game. (The yardage, which Herman doesn’t care about, worked out to 484-387 per game in his favor, on average.)

Herman’s staff also charts out "explosive plays," which he classifies as passes of 16-plus yards and runs of 12-plus yards. The Cougars’ were the 42nd-most explosive offense in the country last year, according to Connelly’s IsoPPP metric.

Herman’s reasoning here is hard to refute, again.

"We call it the 'double positive' in our program," he said. If you win the turnover battle and the explosive play battle in the same game, you win it 98 percent of the time. Now, can you win it with only winning one and losing one? Sure, but if you lose both of ‘em, you only win 2 percent of the games where that occurrence happens."