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How They Got Here: Houston Cougars' Road to the AAC Championship Game

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The Houston administration made a decision to compete at a national level. Their dare has paid off quicker than anyone could have imagined.

Greg Ward Jr. is on the path to becoming a household name for Houston
Greg Ward Jr. is on the path to becoming a household name for Houston
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars found themselves at a crossroads following the 2014 season.

With the university finally reaching a major benchmark by being designated as a Tier One research institution, the Cougars struggled to rebuild their image in the Houston community as well as across the state and nation. Many still tossed around the tired nickname of "Cougar High" to describe the school despite an endowment approaching a billion dollars.

Houston was a Tier One university without a Tier One reputation. Luckily for the Cougars, there's an easy fix for that in Texas. Spends lots of money to get really, really good at football.

Preseason

Everything changed after Houston hired Tom Herman away from Ohio State. The 40 year old offensive mind has already established himself as the best young coach in college football. He drew the Houston administration's eye after turning Ohio State's quarterback unit into a three-headed monster en route to the Buckeye's 2014 national championship.

Houston was a perfect fit for Herman given his close connections to the Texas football scene. Before leaving the Lone Star State for Iowa State, Herman made stops at Texas Lutheran, Texas, Sam Houston State, Texas State, and Rice. The Cougars were also loaded with the talent Herman needed to turn Houston into an immediate contender. After being moved to wide receiver by the previous staff, former John Tyler quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has shown the nation why Texas recruitniks were so high on him coming out of high school.

The Louisville Eyebrow Raiser

After dropping a cool 52 points on Tennessee Tech, the Cougars drew the attention of the conference by knocking off Louisville on the road after Greg Ward exploded for 334 total yards of offense. It wasn't Houston's best game of the year, far from it, but the Cougars were still able to handle the Cardinals for their first regular season win over a Power Five opponent on the road since 2009.

AAC Death March

Following the encouraging win over Louisville, Houston would casually dispatch the Texas State Bobcats 59-14 to draw revenge for their embarrassing season-opening loss to the Bobcats in 2012. From there the Cougars began the first half of their path of destruction through the American Athletic Conference.

Tulsa was the first victim as the Cougars would rush for 364 yards en route to a commanding 38-24 victory. Houston punted just three times as they racked up over 600 yards of total offense. SMU's defense didn't fare much better the following week-- Houston punched it in to the Mustangs' endzone seven times on the ground for a 49-28 thrashing.

Tulane would then feel the wrath of the Third Ward defense as Houston terrorized Tulane's backup quarterback Devin Powell to a 39% completion rate and just 88 yards of passing. The Cougars would then end this four game cruise with another beat down, this time a 59-10 walloping of poor Central Florida.

The SEC Confidence Builder

While the Cougars were undefeated heading in to their mid-season out of conference showdown with Vanderbilt, they had done so by mostly dismantling very poor teams. With Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy looming on the tail end of the schedule, Houston needed to play well against Vanderbilt to prepare themselves for the challenge that the remaining AAC competitors would bring to the table.

Hermans' squad fully embraced the SEC stage as Houston completely dominated Vanderbilt 34-0 on ESPN2. While the offense was held to just three touchdowns the Cougars won the time of possession battle and returned a Vanderbilt interception for a touchdown. While Temple and Navy are both better than Vanderbilt, this performance showed Houston that they can impose their will against strong competition.

Separating from the Pack

Sporting a sexy 8-0 record and a #18 national ranking, Houston faced Cincinnati who looked to be a competitor for the AAC East title at the time. The Cougars held Cincinnati to just 66 yards of rushing while also picking off Gunner Kiel twice. Houston held off a late surge from the Bearcats to move to 9-0 with a 33-30 win.

Next came one of the most entertaining games I watched all season. The #25 Memphis Tigers traveled to Houston seeking to keep their division title hopes in reach after falling to Navy in the previous week. A capacity crowd at TDECU stadium watched Memphis jump out to a 20-0 lead as Greg Ward left the game with an ankle injury.

Backup quarterback Kyle Postma brought the Cougars back into the game with a 30 yard touchdown pass to Linell Bonner to end the first half. Coming out of the locker room energized, a short touchdown run from Kenneth Farrow put the score at 20-14. Memphis would respond with two more scores but a 34-14 deficit in the fourth quarter wasn't enough to stop the Cougars' dream season.

While the defense put the lock down, Postma commanded the offense with impressive poise. Kenneth Farrow kicked off the fourth quarter scoring with a 10 yard touchdown rush. Javin Webb then punched the ball in on the goal line as the Cougars took advantage of a short field. Postma would then give Houston the lead with a seven yard rush on an option run. Paxton Lynch put Memphis in position to take the win from Houston's grasps but a 48 yard field goal attempt would sail wide right as the Third Ward crowd went nuts. The #HTownTakeover never felt more immediate.

The Injuries Catch Up Against UCONN

Tom Herman's coaching job is even more impressive when viewed in context. The Cougars suffered a ton of injuries to starters this season at many crucial position. After losing anticipated offensive line starters Zach Johnson and Josh Thomas to start the season, the Cougars would later lose running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, cornerback William Jackson III and, obviously, star quarterback Greg Ward.

The laundry list of injured starters finally proved to be too much for the Cougars to overcome as UCONN (of all people) managed to find a way to end Houston's undefeated season. The Cougars failed to score in the first half on their way to a 20-17 final. Perhaps the knock back down to Earth was exactly what the Cougars needed...

Statement Made Against Navy

With Greg Ward back in the starting line up, Houston returned to being the well-oiled machine that they are as Houston picked apart #16 Navy's defense to the tune of 52-31. Ward's 308 passing yards were enough to secure the AAC West championship. After spending 15 minutes of each practice week preparing for the triple option, Houston was able to nearly shutdown Navy's vaunted run game.

What's Next?

Houston will seek to put a stamp on a banner season this Saturday in the AAC championship game against Temple. The Cougars are hosting the game at TDECU Stadium and a resounding win could give Houston the inside track to a New Year's Eve bowl game. Considering this program fired its head coach just a year ago, it's been one hell of a ride up to this point as a top tier university finally found itself with a top tier football program.