To get the best sense of how the Houston Cougars went from back to back 8-5 seasons to an 8-0 record, you have to go back to a 2014 loss to Central Florida.
In that fateful game, the Cougars were held to only 12 points in a 17-12 loss. The loss dropped Houston to 2-3 on the season, including a 27-7 beatdown at the hands of UTSA. Their only wins were versus FCS foe Grambling State and FBS bottom dweller UNLV.
A little known wide receiver turned quarterback by the name of Greg Ward Jr. came in for starter John O'Korn and had a solid debut.
With an up and coming Memphis next on the schedule, the Cougars made the switch at quarterback and listed Ward as the starter. Ward had an up and down season passing the football, but brought to the forefront a dual threat ability that was not possible under O'Korn.
Entrenched as the starter, Ward Jr. led the Cougars to an upset win on the road versus Memphis. Seven games later, Houston was heading to a bowl, but looking for a new head coach. After winning the Armed Forces Bowl in dramatic fashion to earn a 6-2 record as a starter, Ward was ready to see what new head coach Tom Herman had in store.
Little did Ward know, Herman was the absolute perfect fit as his head coach with his time running the explosive offense of Ohio State. In Herman's style of play, it was important for the signal caller to be a dual threat that could win game with this legs and arm. Former starter John O'Korn saw the writing on the wall and left to Michigan as a transfer.
While many quarterbacks that are finally given full range as the unquestioned starter tend to get a bit lazy as they settle in, Ward was not most quarterbacks. The junior put in many long hours, looking to learn every part of the new Houston offense in time for the 2015 season.
After looking very good in the season opening win over Tennessee Tech, Greg Ward Jr. put the nation on notice in week two versus Louisville. His 236 yards in the air and another 98 yards on the ground, accounted for three total touchdowns, and woke up the nation to his ability and the Houston Cougars in general.
Six games later, Ward is a Maxwell Award Semifinalist with over 1,900 yards passing and over 700 yards on the ground. His 16 rushing touchdowns lead the nation. Ward Jr. has a combined 27 touchdowns accounted for and 2,665 total yards on the season (passing and rushing).
The biggest surprise for the dual-threat quarterback has been his evolution as a passer. In his eight games as a starter at quarterback in 2014, he was averaging just over 150 yards per game in the air. Through eight games in 2015, he is throwing for 244.4 yards per game. That includes at least 200 yards in the air in every single game this season, capped by a season-high 274 yards and four touchdowns versus Texas State.
For a player that has been part of two straight 8-5 teams, Ward is more worried about the team's overall record than any individual accomplishments. Winning awards for him is great, but an 8-0 record and #18 national ranking is much better.
With Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy and a possible date with Temple in the AAC title game still left on the slate, Ward could work his Cougars to a New Year's Day bowl berth.
From wide receiver to quarterback to the leader of an undefeated program, Ward is definitely on the rise.