Houston stands in Louisville's path to playoff

HOUSTON -- The carnage that Louisville needed to make inroads in the College Football Playoff picture unfolded during this past chaotic weekend. Suddenly, the ball is in the Cardinals' court with an opportunity to hold serve.

With three of the top four teams in the CFP rankings falling on Saturday -- Clemson, Michigan and Washington, with the Tigers and Wolverines losing to unranked teams - the door swung open for the Cardinals to secure a coveted spot in the national semifinals. Louisville, which is 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in this week's Associated Press poll, needed a 34-point fourth quarter to subdue stubborn Wake Forest, but in doing so secured its highest ranking ever.

And now, with two games remaining in their regular season, including a critical Thursday night showdown against Houston (8-2) at Houston's TDECU Stadium, the Cardinals have a viable path to a national championship. Well, at least one less treacherous than the road that faced Louisville following its 42-36 loss at Clemson on Oct. 1.

"For our players they just have to understand that we need to go out and play well and play the type of football that we're capable of playing," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "Really that's what we need to do our last two games. Whatever happens happens; we can't control any of that. We've just got to go play the way we're capable of playing.

"Obviously we know it's on national TV; nobody else is playing. Everybody will be watching it. But those are the types of games we like, something that's fun as a team, something that we've always felt has helped us in recruiting. And we are used to playing midweek games."

The Cardinals will play their fourth non-Saturday game this week. Managing a schedule that undermines the routine of weekly preparation requires both mental and physical flexibility, but at this stage of the season Louisville has endured the drama and sidestepped the pitfalls that befell Clemson, Michigan and Washington.

Following the loss to Clemson and prior to their rally against the Demon Deacons, the Cardinals survived close calls against Duke and Virginia. Against lesser foes their defense has thrived, but when challenged by elite offenses Louisville has wavered. Quarterback Lamar Jackson remains a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, yet against Wake Forest he mustered just one touchdown, and that came with 4:05 left to play.

Dynamic Houston senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is a handful under normal circumstances. Having to prepare for the Cougars' high-scoring offense on a short week only ramps up the potential for Louisville to stumble like so many others have.

"We've had full steam ahead for this game," Petrino said. "We play 7 o'clock on a Saturday night then again on Thursday, that's a short turnaround for our players and our coaches. It required us to do some work last week on Houston.

"Usually on Fridays I get to let our coaches take their kids to school and then come in here later on Friday morning. This week we were in the office at 7 a.m. working on Houston. Usually they get to spend some time Saturday morning. We were up at 7 o'clock Saturday morning working on Houston. We had to adjust schedules. Probably don't know a whole lot what's going on in the world besides getting ready for the Houston game."

Following a 5-0 start and their climb to No. 6 in the national polls, Houston started eying the Louisville game for its potential to thrust the Cougars into the CFP conversation. But Houston followed with a three-game lull that not only snuffed those hopes, but also put in peril a shot to win an American Athletic Conference title.

Houston followed a road loss to Navy with a white-knuckle home win over Tulsa and a shocking defeat against middling SMU. Given those setbacks, the Cougars lack the sizzle they had prior to Navy stunning them and sending their season into a tailspin.

That fact doesn't mean the Cougars aren't relishing the opportunity ahead.

"This is extra anticipation and extra excitement knowing who's coming into town, there's no hiding from that," Cougars coach Tom Herman said. "But, at the same time, it's business as usual. The way we prepare is not going to change. The way we go about our business minute-to-minute and day-by-day, from a preparation standpoint is business as usual. I think our guys are excited to go against a top five team such as Louisville."