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Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer 410d

Tom Herman's toughest coaching job at Houston begins now

HOUSTON -- In the immediate aftermath of the Houston Cougars' only loss of the 2015 season, coach Tom Herman began jotting down notes. He went into, as he termed it, "full introspection mode" after a 20-17 loss to Connecticut last November.

"You ask a million questions of yourself," Herman said two days after the loss. "What could you have done better? I have pages upon pages of notes that I took within the 12 hours immediately after the loss of things that I could do better, that us as a staff need to do better, that our players need to do better."

Presumably, they were effective because the Cougars won their final three games of the season, including the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl over Florida State.

Herman would be wise to keep those notes within reach this season because one loss would send Houston's sudden College Football Playoff hopes into the tank. Fair or not, that's the reality of the situation for a team outside a Power 5 conference.

It's now that Herman's toughest coaching job since arriving at the University of Houston begins. No FBS team has gone undefeated since 2013, when Florida State went 14-0, and only two have done so in the last five years (Ohio State, who was under a postseason ban, was 12-0 in 2012).

That's the tall task Houston must accomplish to have a shot at the playoff.

Herman and his staff must ensure that the Cougars -- who shocked then-No. 3 ranked Oklahoma 33-23 on Saturday at NRG Stadium -- don't put the cart before the horse. The win over Oklahoma made the Cougars one of the hottest conversation topics this week. Being the first Group of 5 team that has a realistic path to the playoff -- and thus, a chance to compete for a national championship -- has people talking.

Houston players can easily scroll through the social media timelines on their smartphones and bask in the glory of this adulation. The Cougars' No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll is the program's highest in more than 25 years. They'll likely be favored in every game remaining on their schedule, with the possible exception of the Nov. 17 showdown with Lamar Jackson-led Louisville.

Publicly, Herman seems unconcerned.

"It'd be foolish of me to think that they're not going to hear it," Herman said Monday. "They're going to hear it. But what I'm proudest of most of this team is that they don't listen to it. I think they truly believe and understand the way that we handle our business and they're a very mature group of guys."

He pointed to a graphic near the ceiling of the team auditorium that said "1-0," a clich├ęd, but oft-used, mechanism by coaches to get players to focus on only the next game, rather than looking ahead. The "1-0" graphic is plastered in several other parts of the building where the team walks and the coaching staff constantly uses the phrase.

"We're not changing," defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. "The demand is always going to be the same. If we don't see it on the field ... if we're not giving maximum effort and running to the ball and hitting people as hard as we can, then we'll just stop the practice. I don't care about the plays, I don't care what they run, I don't care what we run. Unless we have our culture in alignment, then none of this stuff means anything."

For the returning players who were part of 2015's success, it's an easy buy-in. Getting the younger players to believe is a separate challenge. Orlando admitted that there are some younger guys "who don't get it." The coaches trust the results will eventually yield the buy-in from those on the fence. Last season, it was Houston's last-minute win at Louisville in Week 2 that converted some skeptical players to believers in the staff's approach.

"It's kind of like winning a case," sophomore safety Garrett Davis said. "You have evidence and you prove the case built on the evidence. Coach Herman had the plan and he instilled the plan and as each day went by, we started to see success. When that happens, it's easy to jump on board."

Perhaps the biggest threat to Houston's playoff hopes -- and the one that proved costly last season -- is something outside of the team's control: health. Specifically, the health of the Cougars' best player, senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr.

The diminutive Ward (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) missed most of the loss to UConn last year with an ankle injury. His relatively small frame coupled with how frequently he carries the ball increases his injury risk. It's already an issue: Ward suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder that caused him to miss practices early this week. He was at practice on Wednesday, but Herman put a gag order on offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who wouldn't say what Ward did at practice.

With the Cougars hosting FCS foe Lamar this week, Ward's potential absence may not alter the end result. But the Cougars have to keep their fingers crossed that he can remain healthy for the balance of the season.

Their playoff aspirations hinge upon it.

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