For major-college football teams in Texas, the games are finished and the only remaining question is whether postseason poll voters will select Houston (13-1) or TCU (11-2) as the state’s highest-ranked team in 2015.
Regardless of how that vote falls, expect both schools to finish as top-10 teams. Also expect the Cougars’ rise to relevance on the national landscape to be the carryover story from this season that shapes talk about the state’s college football fortunes for next season.
Already, fans at both Texas and Texas A&M are casting wistful glances toward Houston coach Tom Herman as the next savior for their programs if the current coaches cannot improve on this year’s efforts. Fans of both schools are covetous of Herman’s reputation as an elite quarterback whisperer, but for different reasons.
13 Victories by Houston coach Tom Herman, most of any college football team in Texas, during the 2015 season
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Texas coach Charlie Strong, who has a combined mark of 11-14 in two seasons in Austin, has yet to develop a consistent producer at the position. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has suited up some studs but cannot retain their services, with five-star signees Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray topping the latest wave of December transfers.
It is no secret that, as things stand today, Strong and Sumlin will begin next season on the hot seat with improved quarterback play at the top of both schools’ wish lists. And it is clear that Herman, one of the game’s rising stars in the coaching profession, will be able to name his next job — or command another big raise at UH — if he matches or improves on a 2015 season that included an American Athletic Conference title and a 38-24 victory over No. 10 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
It’s also no secret that, while Texas has made its biggest off-season coaching tweak by adding offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, football-related change is ongoing in Aggieland. The roll call of departures since Sunday includes offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and athletic director Eric Hyman.
11 Combined victories by Texas coach Charlie Strong, against 14 losses, in his first two seasons in Austin.
Because Hyman’s resignation came one day after he issued a public declaration of support for Sumlin, it is clear that the real power-brokers in College Station — boosters who funded the recent $485 million renovation of Kyle Field, plus administrators who oversaw the project — want more for their football investment than 8-5 records and second-division finishes in the SEC West.
And it would be a good idea, if Sumlin plans to continue leading that fight, for the A&M coach to distance himself from recent speculation about his interest in an NFL position.
In his most recent public statement, a Monday announcement that former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight will join the A&M program this spring as a transfer with immediate eligibility, Sumlin sounded like a guy with plans to return.
But a big question looms: Would a chance to hire Herman, who did wonders with Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. in his first season at the school after being the offensive play-caller on Ohio State’s 2014 national championship team, cause A&M officials to create an immediate opening in efforts to beat Texas to the punch in pursuit of Herman? Or to make a run at Chip Kelly, a winner at Oregon who flopped in the NFL with Philadelphia?
It seems short-sighted. But there is growing dissatisfaction with Sumlin among A&M fans and boosters after his mishandling of the 2015 quarterback situation played a role in Allen and Murray leaving the team before a season-ending, 27-21 loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl.
With Kelly apparently eyeing an NFL reunion in Tennessee with his favorite former Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota, the logical target is Herman.
But here is an even bigger question: Would Herman, who just signed a contract extension and added Allen to the Cougars’ roster as a transfer, be quick to jettison the Houston job at this point? Or even after next season, when Allen projects to replace an NFL-bound Ward in the 2017 lineup?
Before you answer in the affirmative with a heaping helping of Ag swag or Longhorn love, let’s examine a few pesky facts.
There is enough money at all FBS coaching stops that the days of simply money-whipping a bright, young coach to Austin or College Station should not be taken for granted.
Texas, which failed in its pursuit of Alabama’s Nick Saban after the 2013 season, was reminded of that last month when TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie declined a chance to earn $1.2 million per year as the Longhorns’ next play-caller.
When the postseason Associated Press football poll is announced next week, you can bank on the top three finishers from Texas being schools with stadium capacities of under 50,000: Houston (13-1), TCU (11-2) and Baylor (10-3).
All the venues are new and, typically, filled. Message: Today’s recruits would rather win in front of a packed house than struggle in a bigger venue with 10,000 empty seats.
2 Voluntary QB departures by Texas A&M quarterbacks, both of them five-star signees, in December.
When 2016 preseason polls are revealed, expect to find Houston, TCU and Baylor ahead of A&M and Texas at that point, too. If Houston can knock off Oklahoma in next year’s opener (Sept. 3, Houston), the Cougars could become the first school from outside a Power 5 league to earn College Football Playoff bracket deliberations in December, if not a playoff spot.
If Herman makes that happen, his reputation as the next “it” coach in college football continues to grow. So would the price tag for A&M, Texas or another power program seeking to spirit him away from Houston, which projects as one of college football’s hot venues for next season.
It has been decades since H-Town deserved that designation. But that is the legacy of the 2015 college football season in the Lone Star State.