Tonight's the start of a new college football season. The Houston Cougars hosting Southern at Reliant Stadium at 7:30 p.m. as the Coogs try to erase the horrors of last season by moving into a bright shiny new conference. But the media spotlight's about 90 minutes away in College Station where the traveling circus known as the Johnny Manziel Show gets underway at noon on Saturday when the Aggies host Rice.
The Owls know they're in for a battle, but they're looking to build off of last season's winning campaign and make a second straight bowl game. The team is convinced that I can compete in Conference USA this season, and the veteran squad wants to end their Rice careers on a high note.
"We're really looking forward to it," said Owls head coach David Bailiff on Monday. "They're a top 10 team in every poll you look at, and we think we're going to be a pretty good football team. We're excited to go up there and play one of the best in the country this year, and see what we can do."
The Owls now find themselves dealing with Johnny Football and a circus created by the NCAA which on Wednesday handed down one of the more bizarre punishments in the history of bizarre NCAA punishments. But the Owls stated on Monday that the team's focus isn't so much on stopping Manziel -- or whoever plays the first half -- as it is on making sure they play the best game they can possibly play because if the Owls have leaned one thing over the years, it's that the biggest obstacle to Rice success is Rice.
The Owls started last season 1-5 before going on an incredible streak to finish the season 7-6, winning the Armed Forces Bowl to end it all. They're hoping the end of last season carries over to this season, and most particularly they're hoping the hard learned lessons of last season carry over to this season. The chief lesson being that no matter who Rice plays, no matter the talent level of the team being faced, if the Owls don't execute, if they make stupid mistakes, if they turn the ball over and make stupid penalties, the team's going to lose. But if the Owls don't beat themselves, then they're going to be in every game.
As for tomorrow, the Owls know they'll need to be perfect to even stay close to the Aggies. And no matter what they do on defense, Manziel will probably find a way to defeat them because that's what Manziel does. The game's also not so much about winning as it is about the team improving its play for the start of CUSA season.
"What we have to do, we have to worry about Rice," Bailiff said. "We have to make sure we get better offensively, defensively, and special teams. We know going into this game what the odds are. These games, as much as you want to go in and win them, is about your team improving. We want to make sure we get that type of improvement."
While Rice is hoping to build off of last season, the Cougars are looking to forget last season. To make it not exist. To start anew. So a new conference. Games in different stadiums while a new home field is built. New conference foes.
"Someone asked me a while ago what our motto was last season," UH head coach Tony Levine said on Tuesday. "And I said 'I've forgotten everything from last season'. I certainly haven't but it's like that old saying, we're looking through the windshield, not the rear view mirror. We're looking ahead and I think our team - and some people might say this is coach speak but it's true - is a completely different team."
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The Cougars shouldn't have the battle tonight that the Owls will have tomorrow. They're hosting Southern, a team with a new coach and about which the Coogs know very little, but which they should easily be able to handle. But as the Coogs hopefully remember from the opener last season, there is no such thing as a sure thing.
"Because of them being number one (on our schedule), because of their new coaching staff and because of lack of film on them it's been about Houston," Levine said about team preparation. "Our plan is to go and execute offensively, execute defensively, execute in the kicking game and do the things that we have to do to win football games regardless of our opponent. There's a number of things that we're focused on that whether we're playing Southern, Temple, Louisville, Rutgers, it doesn't matter. We have to do those things. Because this is the first game, it's a new coaching staff and not much film, the emphasis has been on Houston."
There's a new offensive coordinator, Doug Meacham for the Cougars, but David Piland, who spent most of last season as the starter, returns to lead the team at QB. Levine is promising however that highly-recruited freshman John O'Korn will also play at QB versus Southern, though he will not commit to there being any type of QB rotation for the season. But Levine is promising an evolved offense that will remind UH fans of UH offenses of yore.
And so it all begins. UH and Southern tonight at Reliant and on ESPN 3. Tomorrow with Rice at Texas A&M at noon on ESPN. UH is hoping for a better season than last. Rice wants to continue on the upward swing it began last year.