Way back in August, way back when the Houston Cougars were just starting to practice, way back when the temperature was in the 100s instead of the 90s, way back then, at Media Day, head coach Kevin Sumlin and the players met with the media.
They didn't care about the rankings, they said. They didn't care about the BCS. They cared about only those things they had control over: playing each game to the best of their ability; handling everything one week at a time; and winning Conference USA.
The 4-1 Cougars return to Conference USA play this week, and if winning C-USA is their primary goal, then right now they're dealing with disappointment.
The Cougars have easily handled non-conference competition. They are the only non-automatic BCS qualifying team to have defeated three automatic BCS qualifying conference teams. But the one time they faced a conference foe, they were embarrassed.
"This week presents a different challenge," Sumlin said at yesterday's media luncheon. "I like the way our team is approaching things. I like our edge. Just talking to the guys, our team feels that we still have a lot to prove. As long as we continue with that attitude, our preparation will continue to be good."
The primary challenge that this week presents is not repeating what happened the last time the team was presented with this challenge. This week, the Cougars need to treat the Tulane Green Wave as if the Green Wave were a member of the mighty SEC, and not a member of the lowly C-USA. Because if the Cougars come out against Tulane the way they came out against UTEP, then the Cougars might find themselves still sitting at the bottom of the C-USA standings.
"I heard someone say that we're tied for first in the SEC and Big 12 South but tied for last in C-USA. Those wins were good, but that shows how much they mean. We have a lot of proving left to do and this is opportunity number six for us," quarterback Case Keenum said yesterday. "Yeah, it's irritating [being last in C-USA West]. When I watch the ticker on ESPN, we're at the bottom of the standings. It's early and we still control our own destiny, but we need to take it one week at a time and let the rest of the stuff take care of itself."
Like the UTEP game, the Tulane game should be an easy one for the Cougars. Tulane is 2-3 for the season, and its total defense is ranked at 89th in the country. Tulane surrenders an average of 391.4 yards per game on an average of 5.98 yards per play.
Sumlin notes that Tulane has the C-USA's number-one ranked pass defense, which perhaps speaks more to the scarcity of conference games that have been played at this point in the season than it speaks to Tulane's actual pass defense.
As the Cougars have proven this season, they are a team that can pass on anybody. But what the Cougars have not had much luck with is stopping the opposition.
Tulane's offense ranks 94th in the country and averages 328.6 yards per game. And luckily for the Cougars, Tulane's running game is only 96th in the country; luckily, that is, because the Cougars have proven unable to stop any running game this season. So maybe this game will provide a helpful tonic to the UH defense.
The players do appear to be approaching this game with the right mindset. That mindset, of course, being to make UTEP look like an aberration and not a pattern.
"UTEP was a reality check; we can't take any team lightly," receiver Tyron Carrier said. "Not taking anything from UTEP, but we really weren't ourselves. When that happens, you get beat. We have the edge back, and we're going to try to win every game."
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"We've seen what it does when we play high," linebacker C.J. Cavness said, "and we've seen what it does when we don't play well, and we know that the consequence of not playing that high is losing the game. When you play like that you create turnovers, get stops and give offense the ball back. You win the game."
The Houston Cougars are back in the rankings, ranked number 23 by both the AP and the Coaches' polls. While not quite the number-12 ranking the team had before the UTEP game, a national ranking it is, and a C-USA game is once again on the horizon.
The Cougars claim not to care about the national rankings, but instead care only about winning Conference USA. If they win this week, then they better themselves in the conference and the rankings.
But if they lose, they can kiss the rankings and the conference good-bye.