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Commentary: Meaningful games few and far between

Houston captured the inaugural AAC Championship with a 24-13 victory over No. 20-ranked Temple on Dec. 5, 2015. | Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

Strength of schedule is a crucial component for teams to gain credibility in the eyes of the Associated Press — the trusted media outlet responsible for ranking teams each week. Unfortunately for the Cougars, losing an important game to one of their toughest opponents of the season Saturday leaves them few opportunities to secure a signature win.

The 27-24 loss to Texas Tech on Saturday places football at 2-1 on the season before beginning American Athletic Conference play this weekend. Losing to the Red Raiders means it is officially time for Houston fans to root for its conference foe — the No. 18-ranked University of South Florida Bulls, who will host the Cougars on Oct. 28.

As bizarre as this sounds, it might be the only way for Houston to climb its way back into the conversation of college ranking, a system that is notorious for oppressing successful teams in mediocre conferences.

This antiquated coordination should be reviewed by FBS officials, along with the structuring of so-called “super conferences” like the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 10 conferences that are filled with top-ranked teams.

These three conferences alone account for 14 of 25 ranked teams in the latest AP poll, while just two non-Power Five teams can be found in the rankings. Furthermore, consider that 10 of the last 11 national champions were won by either SEC or ACC-member schools.

Houston’s current home — the AAC — contains respectable universities but lacks the amount of prestigious football programs that are found in the Power Five. Recently, AAC officials unveiled a “Power 6” initiative in an attempt to be classified among the best.

The Cougars displayed its fortitude over the last two seasons when playing ranked non-conference opponents. After a season in which Houston went 4-0 against top-25 ranked opponents, the Cougars capped off 2015 by downing No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

When the Big 12 Conference announced plans to consider expansion in June 2016, the Cougars were widely considered to be a lock for annexation because of its recent success.

Houston had hoped to use these victories to pad its resume and gain acceptance in the Big 12. Yet after months of searching, a unanimous vote from the 10 member schools nixed the idea of expanding to 12 teams, leaving Houston in college football purgatory.

The victories that the team had hoped would help them enter into college football relevance could have impaired its efforts in the end.

College football’s power structure and ratings system is set up to encourage Power Five schools to schedule non-conference opponents that serve as punching bags rather than competition. The College Football Playoff committee was supposed to fix this problem, but the new system has proven to grade teams similar to the previous system.

There’s not enough incentive to schedule games against tough non-conference opponents when teams that make up its conference already entail more than enough competition for an impressive single-season resume.

An exception to the rule is when the powerhouse programs occasionally put high-profile teams on their non-conference docket to help bulk up its schedule, but these occasions are rare and reserved largely for college football’s elite.

This dynamic is flipped for schools, like Houston, which are part of a less glamorous conference that needs out-of-conference games against the strongest reasonable competition available to have a chance at proving itself to the AP.

Houston, among others, is left to hope that a team or two from its conference can sneak into the rankings to provide some resemblance of a strong schedule. All signs for Houston point to years of success against AAC opponents, yet being perceived as not good enough to earn games with top-tier opponents.

It will ultimately take a change of scenery for the Cougars to legitimize the possibility of becoming national champions. Until then, Houston supporters should pray that another major conference plays with the idea of expansion or that an NCAA-wide conference realignment creates “super conferences” that allow for a greater sense of parity year after year.

The AAC’s dream of suddenly being accepted as a Power Conference is simply unrealistic.

Houston will have to wait a month to play its first and only ranked opponent in USF.

In the meantime, the Cougars must root for the Bulls who present the first and only opportunity to bolster the team’s bowl resume.  The higher USF is ranked coming into the game, the greater reward Houston can achieve from a potential victory.

With the landscape as it currently is, Houston needs all the help it can get.

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