While Cougar fans know that the 2012 season will be Houston's final as a member of Conference USA, there still is a scheduling question that remains unanswered - who will be UH's final non-conference football opponent for the upcoming season?
The Cougars are expected to open the season with home dates against Texas State and Louisiana Tech. then return to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA for the third straight year. Houston loses a star-studded senior class, and while they beat both Louisiana Tech and UCLA in 2011, both teams provided stiff tests, and both figure to be tough opponents in the upcoming year.
Still, the schedule is noticeably lacking in star power for the second consecutive year. While UH has faced national powers such as Oklahoma State, Alabama and Texas Tech in recent years, that same caliber of "name" opponent is currently absent from known future non-conference schedules. Win or lose, it would be nice to see the Coogs playing in an attention-grabbing game. With a slot still to fill, and a new coach in charge, it might still happen this coming year. So with that optimistic attitude, the following is a list of power programs with a scheduling spot (or two) still to fill in 2012, with help from fbschedules.com:
Why it makes sense: It would create a massive amount of interest, both locally and nationally. The game would be a throwback to the old Southwest Conference days. Texas A&M is still two games short of a full slate of games, and desperate times may call for desperate measures.
Why it won't happen: While I would love to see the Coogs get a shot at the Aggies, this is the least realistic option on the list, for a number of reasons. First, A&M has been more than happy to steer clear of scheduling Houston since the breakup of the SWC, and there's no reason to believe that will change any time in the near future. This is especially true, given the Aggies' poaching of Kevin Sumlin this off-season. The University of Houston may be in no hurry to face off against their former coach, and there's no logical reason for A&M to schedule a one-game litmus test on the wisdom of the Sumlin hire. It would be must-see TV, but it'll never happen.
Why it makes sense: Both schools still have the September 22 weekend available, and it would be the most natural spot to finish the non-conference slate for each school. Both schools feature high-powered offenses, and the potential fireworks display could garner some national attention. Like A&M, Arkansas is a former SWC rival of the Cougars', and the fact that the two schools faced each other on the basketball court this year shows that they're on better speaking terms than UH and A&M.
Why it won't happen: It's both frustrating and understandable that the majority of the SEC treads lightly in non-conference play every year. It's understandable because playing eight SEC opponents every year is difficult enough without playing any more tricky games out of conference. It's frustrating, because if the SEC really is so far ahead as everybody as they'd like us to believe, they should be willing to prove it, instead of loading up on Sun Belt creampuffs and telling everybody, "We're the best, just trust us." And to Arkansas' credit, they have been playing Texas A&M in the non-conference for the last few years. But aside from that rivalry game, here is who the Razorbacks have faced out of conference since 2009: Missouri State (twice), New Mexico, Troy (twice), Tennessee Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP, Eastern Michigan. So while it's possible that the Razorbacks will see Texas A&M joining the conference as the impetus to go find a new, legitimate non-conference opponent (like Houston), it's more likely that they'll give Florida Atlantic a ring, and call it a day.
Why it makes sense: At present, the Sooners have only one non-conference game locked in for 2012. With many teams having already released full schedules, the time to fill up the remaining spots is now. OU has not been afraid to schedule tough in non-conference in recent years, with games against teams like Florida State, Miami, Cincinnati, and even respected schools from non-power conferences, like BYU, TCU and Air Force. The Sooners recruit the Houston area pretty hard (then again, who doesn't?), so some added publicity in this area certainly wouldn't hurt them. Head coach Bob Stoops was open with former UH athletics director Dave Maggard about Sumlin's readiness for a head coaching spot, the two schools have faced off a couple of times on the hardwood in recent years, and have met on the gridiron as recently as 2004, so it's obvious that the phone lines between Houston and Norman work perfectly fine.
Why it won't happen: All reports are that Houston is going to remain pretty staunch in their stance of not taking any more two-for-ones, or no-return games. Even if Oklahoma liked the idea of playing the Coogs, the UH administration might not be willing to accept anything other than one game in Norman, and one game in Houston, and that may be a tough sell. As a reference point, the Sooners haven't left the state to play a road game against a team from a non-power conference since 2001. Granted, Houston is about to shed the non-power conference label, but it would be understandable if OU felt that playing in Robertson Stadium was beneath them. A possible way around that would be playing in Norman in 2012, and then playing at Reliant in 2013, given that the Cougars may very well be playing their home games there during stadium construction, anyway.
The Rest of the Big 12, Depending on the WVU Lawsuit
Why it makes sense: There are ten Big 12 schools (counting West Virginia) who are currently planning on playing nine conference and three non-conference games in 2012. But that is based on the assumption that West Virginia will win its lawsuit against the Big East (or more likely, a deal will be made out of court), allowing the Mountaineers to get around the conference's 27-month waiting period. If things go south, and West Virginia is forced to stay in the Big East for another year, that creates nine Big 12 schools all scrambling for one more non-conference game. (Or three more, in Oklahoma's case.)
Why it won't happen: The most likely scenario remains that the Big 12, West Virginia, and the Big East will manage to settle their differences in time for the Mountaineers to switch conferences already in 2012. Even if WVU does play one more year of football in the Big East, there aren't as many geographical matches as it seems. It's hard to imagine Baylor or (as previously mentioned) Texas A&M pitting their current head coaches against their former school, setting up the possibility for a huge letdown. Texas-Austin's administration would rather drop its football program than face UH. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State already took their shots, and only managed split decisions against the Coogs, and may not want to try their luck a second time. After those schools (and the aforementioned Sooners), that leaves you with Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State. Those would all be respectable opponents, but still not the sexy name you want to see.
Why it makes sense: Both Houston and Nebraska have non-conference games the first three weekends of the year, and nothing yet scheduled on the fourth. A game on September 22nd would put a nice finishing touch on both schools' schedules. The Cornhuskers have consistently scheduled right in that "good team from a non-power conference" to "mediocre team from a power conference" range, so the Cougars wouldn't be a major break in form.
Why it won't happen: Nebraska has been willing to play road games at schools like Wyoming (2011), Southern Miss (2013) and Fresno State (2014). But all three of those schools gave up two-for-ones to get that home game with the Cornhuskers, and as mentioned, it's unlikely Houston would be willing to do the same. Still, everyone recruits Texas, and the fact that Nebraska hasn't played a game in the Lone Star State since leaving the Big 12 (and doesn't have any more on the horizon) could lead them to be a little bit more flexible.
How about it, Cougar fans? If you had your way, who would fill the last spot on Houston's 2012 schedule?