Most of Houston's football focus is going to the Houston Texans, who are once again striving to produce an actual winning season. But there are several other football teams in Houston, and today, one of those teams officially reports for preseason camp.
The team in question is the Houston Cougars, and unlike the Texans and their quest for a mythical winning season, the Cougars over the past several years have been producing winning records. And last season, the Cougars actually won a bowl game for the first time since 1980. Also, unlike the Texans, the Cougars are actually being picked to win their division, in this case, the division being the West Division of Conference USA which would leave the Coogs playing for the championship of C-USA.
The Coogs finished last season 8-5, and had to suffer through some Hurricane Ike relocations, losing a game to Air Force, played on SMU's campus on the day that Ike hit -- and suffering through some of the lesser Ike wind and rain -- then losing the next week in the final seconds to Colorado State in Fort Collins, CO after having spent the week in Dallas. But the team recovered from that 1-3 start to finish 7-2 and was rewarded with a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl where they defeated Air Force 34-28.
This year's team returns junior Case Keenum at quarterback. Keenum threw for 5,020 yards and 44 TD last season while running for seven touchdowns on his way to being named C-USA's Offensive Player of the Year. Keenum's such a force at quarterback that earlier this week he was named to the preseason watch list for the Davey O'Brien Award, which is presented each season to the country's best college quarterback. Among the others on the watch list are Colt McCoy of Texas, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Tim Tebow of Florida, Robert Griffin of Baylor, and Taylor Potts of Texas Tech. (Irish-loving editor's note: And Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame.)
Missing this year will be Keenum's backup, Blake Joseph, who transferred to Sam Houston State during the off-season. The Coogs' defense, which was the top-ranked one in C-USA last season, returns only four starters. The biggest damage appears to be to the defensive line which is returning only starter. But defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat believes that this year's line will be bigger and more athletic.
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The most important returnee to this year's team is head coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin, Oklahoma's former offensive coordinator, took over from Art Briles last season and kept the Cougar offense functioning all cylinders while doing what Briles had never been able to do, win a bowl game. The Coogs' offense was one of the most explosive in college football last season, and the unit gained 400-plus yards in every game last season.
Last season's leading rusher, Bryce Beall, who gained 1,247 yards with 13 TDs on 198 carries to set school records for a freshman in the rushing and TD categories, returns this season as a sophomore. Many of Keenum's receivers from last season are also returning, including Tyron Carrier who led all of the nation's freshmen last year with 80 catches while going for 1,026 yards and nine touchdowns. But the most incredible comeback appears to be that of Patrick Edwards who was the victim of a horrendous injury when he famously broke his right leg after striking a band cart in the end of the Marshall end zone.
The first practice for the team is supposed to be tomorrow, and the first full-pad practice is next Wednesday. The season officially opens on Labor Day weekend as the Cougars host Northwestern State. After that tune-up, the team will head to Stillwater, OK for a game with Oklahoma State before hosting Texas Tech on September 26. Individual game tickets went on sale earlier this week, and the school is reporting that season-ticket sales for this season have increased 17 percent over last season.
So while the Texans continue to tease and draw all of the attention, the Cougars play away from the spotlight despite having actually accomplished something over the past several years. But if the Cougars continue to perform as expected, the spotlight might actually start to shift, especially if the Texans once again under-perform.