The season has come to this. Two weeks for the Houston Cougars to continue with perfection and reach a goal set this summer. Two weeks for the Rice Owls to gain some redemption for a season gone very wrong.
The Cougars acknowledged their possible BCS-buster status this summer. Acknowledged, but didn't focus on. Their goal was something different. Something that was within their power to control. Win the West Division of Conference USA and play for the conference championship in December. Everything else, anything else, would come as a natural byproduct of achieving that goal.
Now comes week 11 of the season. The Cougars are a perfect 10-0. They've stormed through the conference, leaving carnage in their wake. They've risen through the ranks with each win. Each blowout, each runaway victory bringing them closer to the top of the polls. They're now number 11 in the BCS standings, a position guaranteeing not just a bowl game, but a BCS bowl game.
But first things first. Like this week. Putting aside the glamor and the national attention which is suddenly flooding the program (why, hello ESPN and College GameDay, welcome to campus) and focusing on the task ahead. The task of defeating the SMU Mustangs (6-4, 4-2 in C-USA) at Robertson Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
SMU's not a great team by a long shot. But they did defeat TCU earlier in the season -- the same TCU which knocked off Boise State last week, and the same TCU that has played in BCS bowls in previous seasons -- and the Ponies are, without a doubt, the best team that the Cougars have faced so far this season, so it's doubtful that the Coogs will be putting up 70-plus points on them.
And SMU's run-and-shoot offense roughly resembles the Cougars' spread offense, though SMU relies more on the running game that's been led by Zach Line, but will now have to depend on freshman Jared Williams since Line is reportedly out for the season. Still, they should be the first team in a long time that will be able to give the Cougars any type of challenge.
"A lot of teams in this league are capable of beating anybody," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "They have some good players and are well coached. You have to come to play every week. We are quite similar in our approach special-teams-wise. They are not going to be intimidated coming in here at all. In our mind-set, we are looking forward to Saturday afternoon."
But since Line can't go, the Coogs should be in excellent position to go to 11-0 for the season. As long as they don't get overconfident and allow their attention to drift over across campus to Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Erin Andrews and the rest of the ESPN crew.
"It's obviously a huge honor for us to have it here," quarterback Case Keenum said of GameDay. "It's really cool. We are definitely very proud that this is the first time it's ever been in Houston. That's something that we don't take lightly, but there is a lot more out there. Like I said at the beginning of the year when talking about records, championships, awards, anything, I don't want to one day look back and say that we could have done more. I want to be able to say that we left it all out there and that it was really special."
The Rice Owls (3-7) wish they faced the same problems as the Cougars. But their season, their bowl hopes, essentially disappeared before they even hit conference play. Right now they're just playing for the opportunity to win one more game than they did last season. And if they can win their last two games, then they'll finish at 5-7, which will be one game better than last season's record.
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"We have not won as many games as we all wanted to this year, but we are a lot better football team than we were a year ago...," head coach David Bailiff says. "But if you look at some of the other indicators, we are better than we were. That's what we have to build on and we have to build on it this week. It's one of the things you hope to do, get better every week. We got beat by a very solid Northwestern team last week. It's still all about trying to be 1-0 this coming Saturday against Tulane."
The Owls should win this weekend as Tulane is one of the worst teams in the country. But as has been the case this season, they'll probably get the win in a vacuum as there will be nobody at Rice Stadium to watch the game. And unlike the rest of the season, the Owls have an excuse for no attendance this weekend as they're playing at the same time the Cougars are playing in a stadium just miles away.
It's all right there for the Coogs. Beat SMU, then go to Tulsa and take out the Golden Hurricane before heading for the C-USA championship game. Then it's the BCS and Keenum will really be able to say that he couldn't have done anything more. But for the Owls, it's all about the slim chance to improve on last season, to close out November by winning three of four games. For the Owls, it's about the little things. For the Coogs, it's about perfection.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Rice/Tulane game will not be televised, but the radio broadcast can be found at 1560 starting at 2:30 p.m. College GameDay might be visiting UH for the game, but the actual game, starting at 2:30 p.m., will be televised on Fox Sports Houston. For those who want to watch GameDay in person, here is all of the information you need to know. And for the curious, the celebrity guest picker will be UH great Carl Lewis. Just don't let him sing the anthem.