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Welcome to the party: Houston, Texas and old standby Alabama make playoff statements

HOUSTON, ARLINGTON and AUSTIN, Texas -- His entire team had already trickled into the locker room, but Texas coach Charlie Strong lingered on the field at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Sunday, stopping for extra photos, hugs and handshakes as fans in each end zone chanted, "Char-lie! Char-lie! Char-lie!"

Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary ran toward him, giving him the signal to wrap it up.

"Man, you're the last one at the party!" he yelled. "Let's go!"

Texas hasn't partied like this in years.

"We needed tonight to get this program back in the spotlight, and this is a big win for us to get the program headed back," Strong said after an instant-classic, 50-47 double-overtime win against Notre Dame. "I know one game does not make a season. We have many more to go, but this is a great start for us, a record crowd.

"Our fans really needed that. We've been down for so long and people have been talking about us. It was a night for us to just make it right. At least for one game, for one game."

It was an epic culmination to a Texas-sized tripleheader that featured Houston-Oklahoma, USC-Alabama and Notre Dame-Texas. Those three games revealed the juxtaposition of college football's newest contenders in the College Football Playoff conversation -- the Cougars and Longhorns -- and its mainstay, the Crimson Tide.

In a whirlwind tour of three games in two days in one state, it became clear that Alabama is still No. 1; Houston is to be taken seriously until it loses; and Texas has the potential to be a dark horse under the two-quarterback system of 18-year-old phenom Shane Buechele and senior battering ram Tyrone Swoopes.

"We know how to win," Buechele said.

Texas won in the most entertaining fashion, but it was Houston's shocking 33-23 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma that resonated most in the premature playoff picture.

Houston freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the No. 4 recruit in the country last year, bounced through a swarm of his celebrating teammates on Saturday evening, soaring from the Cougars' shocking upset of the Big 12's front-runner.

"I knew I made the right choice when I committed here," Oliver shouted to nobody in particular as he disappeared into the red-clad celebration at NRG Stadium.

Houston seems to be winning everyone over lately.

Oliver and the Cougars, though, are like the freshmen in the fraternity -- they've pledged, but haven't exactly been initiated into the exclusive CFP house. A few hours after Houston's win and about 270 miles away, Alabama reminded us who has lasted the longest in a sport steeped in tradition.

"We're still rollin'," center Bradley Bozeman said after his team's 52-6 dismantling of USC in Arlington. "We're still trying to hold up to the Alabama name."

This weekend in Texas was tangible proof that college football isn't just alive again; it was inhaled with every grill that was fired up, and consumed with every beer, brat and burger in sight. Fans have been thirsty for these high-risk, high-reward marquee matchups, and Week 1 delivered, thanks in large part to the emphasis placed on strength of schedule by the CFP selection committee.

The beauty of these games is that nobody was eliminated. Notre Dame is not doomed if it wins out. USC certainly won't be penalized for losing to the defending national champs if it goes on to win the Pac-12. And OU still has Ohio State and Big 12 play on tap -- but it certainly can't afford to lose to Texas again.

Each game was significant to the CFP race, and it felt like all signs in the state of Texas pointed to the biggest opening weekend in the history of college football.

At Hobby International Airport in Houston, there was a vibrant "Welcome Sooners" sign on a flat-screen TV on the way to baggage claim that had the O and U in red in the word "Houston." On Highway 35 East en route to Arlington, a billboard proclaimed, "Roll Dallas! Proud home of Bama students, fans and alums." A few miles later there was another sign, reminding commuters "Notre Dame vs. Texas tomorrow."

Who knew it would be the kind of thriller we'll be talking about for tomorrows to come?

It was a fitting end to a Week 1 party that stretched across the state, linked together by a fondness for cowboy boots and hats, folding tables and chairs, tents and tailgates.

On a plane from Dallas to Austin, a flight attendant said, "Go Longhorns!"

"Boo!" yelled some Notre Dame fans, waking up some USC fans who were sleeping off the previous evening's nightmare.

What made the entire scene so unique, though, was the combination of college football's most storied programs (Texas, Notre Dame, Alabama, USC and Oklahoma) joined by rising star Houston.

Oliver, the big-time, baby-faced five-star recruit, had seven tackles and two sacks in his first collegiate start -- a statement win that legitimized the Group of 5 program's playoff hopes.

Wait, the Group of 5?

"It has nothing to do with where they're playing at," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "The bottom line is they've got a really good football team."

The question is whether they can sustain it.

Last year, Houston was 10-0 before it was derailed by an unexpected 20-17 loss at unranked UConn. At 12-1 it was still the selection committee's highest-ranked team from the Group of 5, guaranteeing Houston a spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where it beat No. 9 Florida State, 38-24. That game flipped the switch on the expectations for this fall, but it wasn't until Houston's performance against OU that they were validated.

"We all believed we could do it," said Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. "We shocked the nation."

With Saturday's win over Oklahoma, Houston defeated back-to-back top-10 teams for the first time. The Sooners were left sulking, but hardly as embarrassed as USC. It was the Trojans' worst opening loss of the season. Alabama, meanwhile, was having fun and dancing in the locker room.

"It's a whole different team than last season," said Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. "We had a lot of people leave and we have a lot of experience at the same time, but I think the way we play, it's a new identity. We're trying to establish a new identity every game that we play."

Texas has also been searching for a new identity, and it found it with Buechele and first-year offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.

"It feels different because we know that we put it all out there," said receiver John Burt. "... The team last year wouldn't have done that. This is a different team. This is a better team."

Linebacker Malik Jefferson described the feeling on the field after the game as "a deep breath, a relief."

"All of the pressure's off," he said. "Now we just go play Texas football like it's always been."

Well, not always.

Texas and Strong have been desperate for a signature win, and this was the kind that could get the Longhorns into the real party at the end of the season. Problem is, it's a short guest list.

Houston wants an invitation, Alabama never left, and Texas is looking to crash -- even if Strong is the last one in.