On December 3, 2011, the 12-0 Houston Cougars hosted the 10-2 Southern Miss Golden Eagles. The game, aired on ABC, would determine the winner of Conference USA. A win for the Cougars was worth more than a conference title. A win for the Cougars would send Houston to a BCS bowl, and representatives from several of those bowls were present at Robertson Stadium for the most important game in Cougars football since perhaps the 1976 season.
Unfortunately for UH fans, head coach Kevin Sumlin appeared to spend more time that week prepping for his job interview with Texas A&M than he did preparing his football team for the game against Southern Miss. The Cougars were embarrassed, losing 49-28 in a game that wasn't close. Instead of a going to a prestigious BCS Bowl, the Cougars were shuffled off to Dallas and the very minor Heart of Texas Bowl. The Cougars, under new head coach Tony Levine, defeated Penn State 30-14 in that bowl game.
It's been a quick slide into mediocrity for the Cougars since that Southern Miss loss. The Cougars have had zero signature wins, no victories worth bragging about. But the signature losses have piled up. There was the 30-13 loss to Texas State that opened up the 2012 season -- offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt was forced to resign after that game. The Cougars opened this year with a 27-7 loss to a UTSA team that won only four games this season -- no offensive coordinators were forced to resign after this loss. There was the 31-24 loss last month to a Tulane team that's won only three games this season. The Cougars struggled to defeat Tulsa just two weeks ago, and Saturday, the Cougars trailed a winless SMU team 9-7 before pulling out the win.
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The Cougars (7-4) finish out this season on Saturday with a game at Cincinnati against the 8-3 Bearcats. Win or lose, the Cougars are going to a bowl game, the second in three years under Levine, and the third in four seasons. But the season ender against Cincinnati is meaningless. The Cougars are a mediocre football team that will be going to a mediocre, lower-tier bowl no matter the outcome of the game. It's a far, far cry from that day in 2011 when the Cougars played for a chance at a BCS Bowl. Here's the question that needs to be asked of the Cougars: is mediocrity good enough? Are six to eight wins a year and a low tier bowl really the best that the school can expect, can do, every season? Is that really satisfactory? The Cougars appear to be perfectly positioned to maintain middling performance levels from season to season. The coach isn't a gambler, and he's definitely not fancy. He's grounded the Air Raid offense, preferring an offense based on the running game, and willing to merely take what the opposing defense gives it. And as long as the Cougars play in second-rate clone of Conference USA against hapless teams like Tulane, Tulsa, SMU, and Temple, then the Cougars should be guaranteed the mere minimum number of wins needed for bowl eligibility.
But if this is what the Cougars are satisfied with, then perhaps UH fans can be forgiven their decades-long apathy towards the program. There's no reason to get excited about a football team that's merely satisfied with just gaining bowl eligibility from season to season. Just being good enough shouldn't be enough to satisfy an apathetic fan base, and if this season is any indication, even having a new stadium isn't enough to fire up fans and get them out to see a team play just competently enough against a weak schedule to fall into a fourth-tier bowl game.
And the fear shouldn't be just whether the Cougars are willing to accept mediocrity. The fear should be that the mediocrity of the past several years is merely a stop on the way to irrelevancy. Of the Cougars becoming just another team like UTEP or Tulsa or Tulane that does just enough every couple of years to make a bowl game, but are otherwise non-entities that celebrate big wins over mediocre conference rivals while being demolished time and time again by any major program they play.
It seems like forever since that game against Southern Miss. But in reality, it's not that long ago. However, if the Cougars continue on the current course, being just good enough for low-tier bowls tied into a non-power conference, then playing in conference title games with a major bowl on the line will long be a thing of the past. The Cougars worked very hard to escape the depths resulting from the coaching regimes of Kim Helton and Dana Dimel, but unless something changes, the Cougars might soon be tumbling down that hole once again.