The Cougars are one game short of regular-season perfection. One game short of the team's best win total. Ever. One game short of the Conference USA title game. A BCS Bowl is just over the horizon.
Of course, the Cougars haven't played the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa's overall record of 8-3 isn't as nice and shiny as the Coogs' 11-0, but then again, Tulsa went out and played Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State before getting to conference play, so that record makes a bit more sense seeing as how they lost to three of the best college football teams in the country.
So tomorrow at 11 a.m. (on Fox Sports Houston), Houston and Tulsa match up to end the regular season. Tulsa is the one team left in the C-USA West Division that can stop the Cougars from perfection because in a season where Houston has raced up and down the field on opponent after opponent, it's only now, in this last regular-season game, that they're facing a team that can match the Cougars step-for-step offensively.
"It's like a playoff," Houston quarterback Case Keenum says. "It doesn't matter what's happened before. It only matters what happens this week."
The Cougars average 53.1 points per game. They've scored 302 points in just the last five games. The Cougars have 46 scoring drives that took two minutes or less. They've had 42 scoring drives that took six plays or less. And the much-maligned Cougar defense is allowing just 21.4 points a game.
That's impressive, but then look at Tulsa's stats. All Tulsa does is average 40.5 points per game. They've scored 50-plus points twice this season (and done it 16 times in the past five seasons). Tulsa has also scored 40-plus points 25 times in the past five years. They've had 10 scoring drives this season that took 48 seconds or less. Their defense, after being slaughtered by Oklahoma in the opening game, has settled down during conference play, surrendering only 16.0 points per game. And they've held three opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
And while Keenum holds just about every NCAA record there is for quarterbacks, Tulsa's G.J. Kinne is no slouch. He's gained 10,397 career yards on offense, and he's thrown for over 9,000 yards in his career while rushing for over 1,000 yards and throwing 77 touchdown passes. Yes, those numbers aren't Case Keenum numbers, but then again, there's very few college QBs with numbers approaching those of Keenum.
The Cougars have to be focused on this game with Tulsa because if they don't win, they kiss a BCS Bowl goodbye. If they lose they can't even get to the Liberty Bowl. If they lose tomorrow, they go from playing in one of the granddaddy bowls, one of those bowl games everybody watches, to playing in one of those low-tier bowls played at 2:30 in the afternoon in the middle of the week with a viewing audience of vacationers, the sick and the diehards.
For the Rice Owls, Saturday's season-ender with the SMU Mustangs (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Houston) isn't about advancing to a bowl game, or about stopping a team from going to a bowl. For the Owls (4-7, 3-4 in C-USA), the game is about getting some kind of redemption for a year that failed to live up to its promise. It's a chance to win three of four November games, to finish with an even conference record, to finally win a game on the road, and it's perhaps a way to try and get some momentum for next year.
"To finish conference 4-4. To win one on the road. We haven't done that this year," says Owls head coach David Bailiff. "It would be nice to get a road win. It's all the reasons in the world to go get this win."
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SMU (6-5, 4-3 in conference) is coming off of a loss to the Cougars last week. To go with that loss is the fact that the Mustangs are without their best player and C-USA's leading rusher Zach Line. The Mustangs are bowl-bound, the question is which bowl, and a win over Rice might mean the difference between something like playing a game before Christmas in St. Petersburg, or heading out to a Christmas game in Hawaii.
As always, the Owls will be relying on running back Tyler Smith and receivers/tight ends Luke Willson and Vance McDonald to make the plays on offense that will hopefully get the team within range of sophomore kicker Chris Boswell, who last week nailed two field goals, kicking into the wind, of 50-plus yards in the Owls' 19-7 win over Tulane. But they need to cut down on the stupid penalties and the missed tackles that have killed the Owls time and time again this season.
It's possible the Owls can go out on a win. They just need to play perfect football. As for the Cougars, it's all right there for them. Everything they've dreamed of. The BCS. If they win the game, that is.
MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: College basketball season has started, and the Rice Owls men's team is 4-0 after a 75-59 win over Florida A&M on Tuesday. This year's Owls team is a young one, and it's perhaps the most talented team to come through Rice in a long time. The Cougars are 3-1 after a tough 76-74 loss to Oakland on Tuesday night. Oakland's a small school in Michigan, but the team has become a regular fixture the past several seasons in the NCAA Tourney, and they used that experience to hold off a young Coog team which was eager but sloppy. Both teams return to action on Saturday, with UH hosting TCU at Hofheinz Pavilion while Rice takes part in a tourney.