HOUSTON -- Barely two months removed from one of the biggest bowl wins in program history and its highest end-of-season ranking in decades, Houston took the field for its first spring practice with the look of a team that had something to prove.
Coach Tom Herman is determined to keep the Cougars from basking in the glow of a 13-1 season that included a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl win over Florida State and a No. 8 ranking in the Associated Press poll, so much so that he is reportedly prohibiting Peach Bowl gear from workouts.
The energy displayed by assistant coaches at the start of Monday's practice gave the Cougars the look of hunters, not the hunted. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite lined up at outside linebacker and rushed quarterback Greg Ward Jr. during an early drill. Defensive line coach Oscar Giles was quick to drop into a three-point stance as he coached his defensive linemen. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and strength coach Yancy McKnight roamed through stretch lines hollering instructions; McKnight's face turning redder as his volume rose. Defensive analyst Thomas Dunson kicked his knees up with the intensity of a sprinter readying for a 100-meter dash.
All the while, Herman – arguably the most energetic of them all – stood quietly focused, arms crossed, watching his team begin what could be an unprecedented journey for a Group of 5 program in 2016: an attempt to crash the College Football Playoff party from outside a Power 5 conference.
"We embrace that we have a target on our back," Ward said. "We're not the underdog as everyone says. We're not coming up from the bottom. We're looking to compete against anybody."
A Group of 5 team with Power 5 dreams, the Cougars, -- ranked No. 11 in ESPN's Way-Too-Early Top 25 -- might be positioned better than any any team ever has been to make a run at real national glory from outside a traditional power conference. Making the playoff will be an immense challenge: The Cougars must go undefeated with a schedule that includes two Power 5 foes (Oklahoma and Louisville).
Could a 13-0 champion of The American elbow its way into the top four? That's unknown and if the Sooners prevail in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff on Sept. 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston, it'll be a moot point. If the Cougars, who return a dynamic quarterback in Ward and most of their front seven, were to win, they could have a shot.
Herman is quick to downplay any such talk. Asked Monday how much discussion he had with his team prior to spring football about long-term season goals, he shot back "None. Zero."
In January, when asked about what it would take to make the top four, Herman went on a rant about the playoff's selection committee, based on how the Cougars were ranked throughout last season.
"I might get my hand slapped for saying it but I don't know what the criteria is," Herman said. "If someone would just tell us what the criteria is, maybe I could give you a better answer. But right now, I don't know what the criteria is. ... Is it Top 25 wins? Then yeah, we can. Is it scoring a lot of points? Then yeah, we can. ... To answer your question, I don't know, because nobody has told me what is required to be in the top four."
It's easy to wonder. Asked if players have talked among themselves this offseason about the possibility of making the playoff, senior receiver Chance Allen said "Definitely."
"A lot of people talk; [other] people say we might be the team if we can beat Oklahoma," Allen said. "Like I said though, we take it one game at a time. If we're up there for national championship at the end of it, that's a blessing. I hope we can be up there with those teams like Alabama and Ohio State to face off with them."
Herman admits he has been "sniffing around" daily for a hint of complacency among his group, but he has yet to find it. "The culture around here is well-grounded," he said Monday. His biggest concern is not talent on the roster, but rather, leadership. It's a void the Cougars must fill after losing multi-year starters who were the heart and soul of the 2015 squad: safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald, linebacker Elandon Roberts, running back Kenneth Farrow and receiver Demarcus Ayers.
The Cougars are aware of the heightened expectations but say they haven't lost sight of what it took to reach their 2015 accomplishments. If there's any chance to realize the lofty possibilities of 2016, a greater effort will be required.
"We have to every day, every day come out here with that mindset that you're going to get better at something, at any little thing," Allen said. "That you're going to get better at something today; don't just come out here and go through the motions, living off last year and the experience that the guys had last year.
"As a senior and a leader, I'm trying to tell guys 'Don't think about last year.' We have a whole new identity, a whole new year and we have a good opponent coming up in the first game."