-- HOUSTON -- There is no bigger question mark in the College Football Playoff entering 2016 than the one printed on the back of the T-shirts the Houston Cougars wore all spring.
"Last year was special," said quarterback Greg Ward Jr., "but who are we going to be this year? Who do we want to be?"
Here's who Houston can be -- the first team from a Group of 5 conference (Sun Belt, Mid-American, American, Mountain West or Conference USA) to crack the selection committee's top four and earn a spot in a CFP semifinal game. Houston can be the team that proves the playoff is open to more than just the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Pac-12 conference champions. It can be the team that derails top-10 contender Oklahoma in the season opener.
Or it can be eliminated from the playoff in Week 1.
"I do agree that you have to be undefeated," said Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek. "We can't lose the Oklahoma game and still be a candidate. Even if we play that game close, I still think it knocks you out of the discussion unless you have your Power 5 teams with two or three losses at the top and it gets kind of bunched up, but it always seems to work out that you have some separation at the top."
So goes the tightrope walk of a talented team with zero margin for error in this system -- a four-team bracket that is promoted as being all-inclusive but also punishes the smaller leagues for their weaker schedules. That's why there is a different standard in how the selection committee judges the FBS, and Power 5 schools can afford to slip, while even the best Group of 5 teams face the burden of going undefeated.
"It's not only your nonconference schedule, it's your conference schedule, so how good are the other teams in your conference?" said CFP executive director Bill Hancock. "It's all 13 games. Across the board, play a good schedule and win your games and you'll be in the hunt."
Not only does Houston have to be good -- so does the rest of the American, which had three teams finish in the committee's top 25 last year: No. 18 Houston, No. 21 Navy and No. 24 Temple.
If Houston somehow manages to win all 13 games, including a win against Oklahoma, five road trips, a Thursday night home game against a surging Louisville program on Nov. 17, and the American title, coach Tom Herman said his team should be in.
"Yes, or the system is broken," he said. "If we play the schedule we play -- if a team plays the schedule this team will play -- and wins every one of their games, the answer is absolutely yes or the system is broken and we need a new system, unless there are four undefeated teams that are clearly better than this undefeated team. Which, how many times in history has that happened?"
Houston seems to have everything -- a veteran quarterback, ranked opponents, the rising star coach -- everything but the benefit of the doubt typically given to brand-name champions from the elite conferences.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said that during the next several years, he'd like to see his league convince the selection committee it's deep enough that its top playoff contender should be able to afford a loss and still make the top four.
Until then, Houston enters 2016 carrying the banner for the entire Group of 5.
"I do think it's going to be difficult, but is there a path? Yes," Aresco said. "I think this is going to be the test of the committee. If Houston does that -- it's a big 'if,' they play a tough game to start the season against a really good Oklahoma team -- but let's say Oklahoma is a team that all season long is vying for that bid and Houston has beaten them and is undefeated. I think the committee has to give it a hard look."
Houston earned the selection committee's respect last year after it beat three ranked teams in the final four games of the regular season, and won the AAC title. Houston went on to beat Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, capping a successful season that catapulted the program into the national picture.
If Houston loses to OU, the Cougars will refocus on winning the AAC title and earning a bid to a New Year's Six bowl, which is guaranteed to the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5.
"Here's the really cool thing, and one of the reasons why we're all still here and excited about staying here," Herman said, "the way the current system is set up, our conference has definitely separated itself from the rest of the non-Power 5 conferences. Barring Boise going undefeated, or some other team having some miracle season, you win the AAC and you're going to a New Year's Six bowl game."
There is no better consolation prize than an invitation to one of the historic bowls.
This year the Fiesta and Peach bowls are hosting the semifinals on New Year's Eve, and the Rose Bowl (Pac-12 champ vs. Big Ten champ) and Sugar Bowl (SEC vs. Big 12) are contract bowls, so Houston could wind up in either the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl.
Asked if he sensed there might be something special about this team, Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said not yet. This group is still searching for its identity -- hence the symbolic spring T-shirts.
"Who are we? Nobody knows who we are," Applewhite said. "You always look for little coaching things and if you keep working, keep pounding on that question mark keep pounding it like iron, you can shape that thing into an exclamation point. That's what we've talked about as a team, is through the hard work, that question mark can be hammered into an exclamation point."
Lose to OU in Week 1, though, and the playoff is out of the question.