Cougars close, but one challenge remains
The No. 6/7 Cougars are 12-0 after a convincing 48-16 win against Tulsa.
UH broke a tie with the Golden Hurricane and won the Conference USA West Division, while earning an opportunity to accomplish its most important goal — to play in the C-USA Championship game.
The margin of victory in nine of those 12 wins may make it seem like this road has been effortless. It hasn’t been.
No team has ever won all of its C-USA games, but there was no other option. UH and Tulsa were deadlocked in the West for weeks — a slip-up would have been unaffordable.
The Golden Hurricane played the likes of No. 13 Oklahoma, No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 9 Boise State for three of its four non-conference games.
The UH defense continued to show significant progress, limiting Tulsa to its second-lowest point total of the season.
The unit’s emergence makes it safe to say that defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, his assistant coaches and the personnel have shed the Cougars’ bend but don’t break label.
Instead of planning for the nation’s top offense, opponents have to prepare for senior linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw and junior cornerback D.J. Hayden in the secondary.
It has been a dream-like season for the Cougars. NCAA records have been shattered, and quarterback Case Keenum is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. If UH wins one more game, it will likely receive an invitation to play in a BCS bowl.
Every program in the country wants that kind of exposure, but the buzz will fade if UH does not win its 13th game.
No. 24 Southern Miss. (10-2, 6-2) is the latest foe aiming to spoil the Cougars’ historic run.
As a measure of how significant this game is for the University, the matchup with the Golden Eagles will be televised on ABC.
It has been 18 years since the Cougars have had a game on the network, and it is the first time a C-USA Championship has received coverage this large.
The offense and defense will have to show up. The Golden Eagles are second behind the Cougars in points scored per game, and their defense allows less points than UH.
In his four years as head coach, Kevin Sumlin has never won a C-USA championship; neither has Keenum. A win Saturday cements their legacies, and puts this year’s team into hallowed college football territory.
A loss would be bitter, as the Cougars would go from BCS busters to playing in the Armed Forces Bowl or Liberty Bowl.
The Cougars will be favored to beat Southern Miss., and have the empowerment of controlling their postseason fate.
The hopes of a city and university will be on the line at 11 a.m. Saturday at Robertson Stadium.