The Houston Cougars' phenomenal 2015 season has brought new energy to the program. UH grew into a formidable team under head coach Tom Herman in his first year, but the real benefits of this new period in Cougar football will start showing this year.
Not only was Houston exceptional last year, they were entertaining. People didn't just respect the Cougars, they were actively watching them. The American Athletic Conference and UH recognize that, and the new found attention has produced mid-week opportunities to gain more recognition on national television.
Before getting into the importance of these mid-week games, it's time to respect Oklahoma. While mid-week games seem to be a theme of the season, there is no doubt that the biggest game of the season is the second-week hosting of Oklahoma at the Houston Texans' NRG Stadium. No other opponent this season has the draw and prestige that Oklahoma has, and it will be a prime-time opportunity for the Cougars to knock off another big program. A win over the Sooners could legitimately start an early conversation for Houston's BCS bowl chances or even a playoff spot.
However, the overwhelming theme of this season is that most of UH's biggest games will be played on weekdays. Houston plays FOUR weekday games, three of which are important conference battles. It starts with an away trip to face the Cincinnati Bearcats on Thursday, September 15, and is then followed by hosting the UConn Huskies on another Thursday, September 29.
The Cougars end the season with two weekday games. First, Houston hosts the Louisville Cardinals on November 17, a Thursday, and then they hit the road to end the season against the Memphis Tigers on November 25, a Friday.
The first pair of games shouldn't be all that difficult, but they still hold importance and it will be crucial the Cougars go into both with focus and composure. Domination may be expected, but the Cougars have to ensure they don't slip up and underestimate their opponents on national television.
No matter the opponent, the magnitude of playing on national television is the most certain way to grow a fan base while earning more respect and recognition... not to mention appealing to recruits.
While the Bearcats and Huskies look like a couple of cakewalks, there are vital aspects of the season on the line. Both games are certainly important but they almost pale in comparison to the late-season finish against Louisville and Memphis.
After the incredible battle between the Cardinals and Cougars last year, which resulted in statement-sending 34-31 win for UH, this will likely be one of the most anticipated games of 2016. Both programs are young and talented, and this year's version looks like it could hold similar weight.
Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino was able to salvage an 8-5 season last year after the Cardinals were able to get over three close losses to start the season, which included their loss against Houston.
This upcoming season, UH will play Louisville just before the end of the year, likely when they'll be at their peak. The same logic applies to Houston, and that grows the value of a win exponentially. National television, an established out-of-conference opponent and a rematch of a 2015 classic? This game should be both entertaining and critical.
And to turn up the metaphorical heat, the Cougars turn right around to face Memphis, who also lost in emphatic fashion to UH in 2015, 35-34.
The context of last season's victory as well as the post-season implications makes the away trip against the Tigers one of the most important, if not the most important game of the season. Houston's aspirations are understandably high in 2016, but taking care of the conference is the most important objective.
The October 8 trip to Navy also comes to mind, but the battle against Memphis will be the final roadblock in the path to the American Athletic Conference title and it will be the last chance UH has to impress voters in the regular season.
While most teams have somewhere between one and three key games every season, it seems like Houston has somewhere between four and six. Many questions surround Houston heading into the season, and one of the most important is whether they can handle the strength of their schedule consistently.
Houston is possibly facing the toughest schedule in the Group of 5, and they are the only ones who could potentially run the table with it. Should they be able to handle all or most opponents, the massive step from 2014 to 2015 will be followed by an even bigger one.