The distractions are there for the 12-0 Houston Cougars, the number six team in the BCS standings. Distractions like which BCS bowl game they're playing. Distractions like which team they're playing in that BCS bowl -- current projections being Michigan in the Sugar.
Then there are the distractions about head coach Kevin Sumlin's future, distractions furthered by the weekend bloodletting that left open jobs at such schools as Arizona State, UCLA,
Washington State (never mind, Mike Leach got there first) and Illinois (oh, and here's a very special thanks to Texas A&M for deciding to ruin everyone's weekend yesterday). And there are the continued distractions about the school's future conference affiliation.
But if the Cougars don't defeat the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (10-2, 6-2 in conference), ranked 24th in the BCS, then none of those distractions will matter. The Cougars won't be talking about a Sugar Bowl against Michigan. They'll be talking about a Ticket City Bowl against a mediocrity like Northwestern or Iowa State. They won't be talking about BCS rankings, they'll be talking about a season that suddenly seems like a failure.
The Cougars have been in this situation before under Sumlin. Kind of. Just two seasons ago the school finished 10-4. But they lost in the C-USA title game and had to settle for the Armed Forces Bowl after storming the rankings earlier in the season on the basis of upsets of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. Then came losses to UTEP, and UCF, and East Carolina, and Air Force.
Sumlin was mentioned in lots of coaching-vacancy talk that season, too. But he chose to stay in Houston, getting a contract extension as a reward for the team's best season since the Jack Pardee/John Jenkins era.
"You talk about coaches two ways in college football," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "A bunch of them, they talked about letting them go on Monday and Sunday. The other guys, they talk about moving on to other jobs. I don't want to be in that first conversation. As long as you keep talking about me moving on, hopefully, I'm doing a pretty good job at that point."
The Coogs are a heavily senior-laden team, a team full of players who went through these distractions two years ago and who knows how to deal with these matters. It's a team that knows that all that matters is what happens on the field Saturday against a good but puzzling Southern Miss team that could, just as easily as the Cougars, be 12-0 on the season but for puzzling conference road losses at Marshall and UAB.
"This is a well-coached football team," Sumlin said of Southern Miss. "If you are going to compare them to anybody, they are similar to us. We both have veteran quarterbacks who have played a lot of quality football games and have a lot of quality wins. They lead the league in rush defense and we lead the league in pass defense. They are second in the league in scoring defense and we are third in the league in scoring defense. You can go on and on comparing our statistics. They are a top 25 team with a veteran quarterback. When you get to championship play, quarterback play becomes a big factor. They have a quality quarterback in Austin Davis. He can throw the ball and forces you to cover the whole field. There is no doubt that they will be able to move the ball." There's nothing complicated about what the Cougars will do on Saturday. Houston offers up an offense with which Southern Miss is well-acquainted. The last time the Cougars won the C-USA title, they did so by defeating Southern Miss in the C-USA title game played in Houston. In 2009, the Cougars won a thriller when Case Keenum hit Patrick Edwards for a TD with 28 seconds remaining in a game that generated 1,358 yards of total offense. And the Coogs lost a 59-41 game in Southern Miss last season.
"There's no secret to what they do," Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora said. "It's not like they are doing something different week in and week out. They do what they do. They are going to run the routes the way they run them. They are going to go up tempo. They are going to run the ball when you give them numbers, and they will try to take advantage of you. They've got guys with some speed and you have to be great tacklers. You can't give them big plays when you should be making a tackle."
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The key for the Coogs will be the defense finding ways to stop a QB in Davis, who, like Tulsa's G.J. Kinne last week, can run as well as he can pass. But the Houston defense has improved as the season has gone along, especially on third down and points allowed. And if they perform against Southern Miss like they did in the past two games against SMU and Tulsa, the Coogs should get the win.
"The week before (against SMU) was the best defense I've seen play here since I can remember," Case Keenum says. "They gave an encore performance this past week (against Tulsa). I hope that continues and it will continue. Those guys are playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of speed. They're making plays from the defensive backs to the linebackers all the way to the defensive linemen."
It's all right there, just waiting for the Cougars to snatch it. A trip to the BCS. A game against a BCS power on national TV in primetime. They just have to handle business this weekend. They just have to defeat a pesky Southern Miss team that wants nothing more than to knock the Cougars off their high perch and win the conference.
To the Cougars, right now, nothing else matters. Not the bowls. Not the rankings. Just beating Southern Miss on Saturday morning. Kickoff's set for 11:00 on ABC. And the Cougars will be ready.