Tomorrow is the day the Cougars have pointed toward since they won the Armed Forces Bowl back on New Year's Eve 2008. Tomorrow is the Conference USA Title Game, and all this season, the Cougar coaches and players have talked of playing in this game and winning the conference.
And the time has finally come.
The 10-2 Cougars come into this game as the favorites. That happens when you're a ranked team. But the Cougars aren't taking this game against the 8-4 East Carolina Pirates for granted.
"This is uncharted waters," head coach Kevin Sumlin said at Tuesday's media luncheon. "We're in a situation right now that we have a younger team that is going through some things for the first time. We're going on the road to play a team that is the defending champs, who won [the C-USA title] on the road last year against Tulsa. They don't make mistakes. They keep the ball in front of them. They create turnovers and score off of that. That's where the game breaks down to me. That's our biggest challenge."
The Cougars didn't face East Carolina this year. The two teams did meet last season, with the Cougars defeating the then-ranked Pirates 41-24 behind an outstanding game from Case Keenum. The Coog QB went 37-for-45 for 401 yards and three touchdowns in that game, against a defense that returns many of the same players. But what happened in 2008 doesn't mean anything when it comes to 2009.
Then there's the fact that the Cougars are having to play on the road in Greenville, NC in front of a large, hostile crowd. The Cougars have played some excellent football on the road and in front of large partisan crowds and they've had success -- see the victories over Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. But their only failures of the season have been on the road, embarrassing defeats at UTEP and UCF.
But Sumlin likes what he's seeing from his team.
"Right now, I like how we're playing," he said. "We're playing at a high level, and we're playing some of the best football we've played all year. If there's ever a time to peak, it would be right now. We've had our share of experiences on the road, going into places that have been difficult when it comes to crowd noise and atmosphere. Our team has been in those types of places. We've been in some big games so we'll see. These guys have found a way all year to expect those types of challenges. Our guys are excited about this opportunity this weekend."
And Mr. Clutch, Case Keenum, isn't worried about the crowd, or the noise that the crowd that might make. He even likes it.
"I like playing on the road with people who don't care whether they're yelling for you or booing for you," he said. "We can feed off that energy as well. We've been in this situation before with hostile crowds and we're not going to dwell on that fact. We'll just go out and play the football that we know how."
Winning the game earns the Cougars more than just the conference title; it probably lands them in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on January 2nd playing Arkansas. But if the Cougars should somehow lose, they might not get many prime bowl options.
SMU and UCF have already accepted the C-USA slots in the Hawaii Bowl (SMU) and the St. Petersburg Bowl (UCF). The Houston Chronicle's Steve Campbell speculates that, god forbid, should the Cougars lose, they'll probably end up back in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth for the second straight year, playing Air Force (again). If not there, then the odds are they'll end up in the New Orleans Bowl taking on the champ of the Sun Belt Conference. The hometown Texas Bowl, which has hosted C-USA teams the past several years, has decided to go the route of mediocrity and will probably feature an awe-inspiring match-up of Navy and Iowa State.
If the Cougars do the job that they're more than capable of doing, if they treat East Carolina like the dangerous opponent they are -- like they treated Oklahoma State and Mississippi State -- and not like they treated UTEP and UCF, then the Cougars should win the conference title and should have Memphis marked as the location for their next football game.
Senior cornerback Carson Blackmon says it best: "I believe everyone knows what's at stake. We're all going to go out there and give it our all."
Giving it their all is all the fans can expect. And giving it their all should spell one more victory for the Houston Cougars.
The game is on ESPN2 starting at 11 a.m.
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