C-USA: Houston, Keenum may go on record-breaking air raid

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Chew on this for a minute: The University of Houston has as many Heisman Trophy winners as Alabama and Penn State.

However, it has been 21 years since Andre Ware took the stiff-arm.

But it's a different world today. You know that. Every "also-ran" conference program knows that.

When Ware took home the honor in 1989, Houston was a member of the Southwest Conference, a league that included the big boys of Texas that now reside in the Big 12. Now, Houston sits in the non-BCS world in Conference USA, one of three conferences that have yet to put a team into one of the coveted bowls.

Players have challenged for the award in recent years from smaller conferences. Timmy Chang set records at Hawaii; his successor Colt Brennan earned an invite to New York. Nate Davis, DeAngelo Williams, Kevin Smith, Ian Johnson and Alex Smith all finished in the top 10.

But the rule has been clearly stated: Guys from schools like today's Houston don't win the Heisman.

Well that's going to be put to the test again this season.

Case Keenum (along with Boise State's Kellen Moore) will make a push that rivals Brennan's of 2008. All Keenum did in 2009 was lead the nation with 44 passing touchdowns. He's 32 touchdown passes behind Graham Harrell for the all-time record and 4,122 yards behind Chang's yardage mark. So he's one more Keenum-esque season from leaving school with the NCAA's two top passing records.

But perhaps something new for Keenum will be the pressure. It will be a season-long watch as he approaches the records as well as having his name thrown about in Heisman debates. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't too worried about the effect on his leader.

"He's led the country the last two years in a row, so ... funny, I get that question because for us he's been a leader since he's been here and those expectations, those achievements have come every year," Sumlin said. "So, I don't see it being any different than it has been."

Let's be honest for a minute here. In today's world, Keenum's chances are very slim and about the only way he can gain serious consideration depends entirely on his team. What did Brennan's team do that none of the others did? Go undefeated and earn a berth in the BCS. That's the recipe for a successful Heisman campaign.

And Keenum might have the cast to make it happen.

Back from last year's No. 1 offense are nine starters, including All-Conference USA first-teamer James Cleveland at receiver. So if you thought last year's numbers were unbelievable, wait to see what one more year together produces.

But there's a catch. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorson is gone, leaving to take the same position at Oklahoma State, so receivers coach Jason Phillips gets the promotion to run the show.

"I don't know that we'll change very much. As I've told people, offensively, I don't know that we've changed very much. And if we were, I wouldn't tell anybody anyway," Sumlin said.

As Keenum himself admitted in a recent interview, though, staying static isn't exactly the best approach.

"On offense we have to evolve and change. Because if you aren't getting better, you're getting worse."

Maybe an increase in the running game is in order to help keep defenses honest?

C-USA Quick Hits
Best offense: Houston
Best defense: UCF
Sleeper team: SMU
Coach of the year: Larry Fedora, Southern Miss
Offensive player: Case Keenum, Houston
Defensive player: Bruce Miller, UCF
Game of the Year: Houston at Southern Miss, Nov. 20
C-USA Championship: Houston over Southern Miss
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"We're the No. 1 offense in the country, and it's not because we just throw the ball every down," Sumlin said. "I think our run game has been effective. Can it be better? Yes. But I think we run the ball a bit better than most people give us credit for."

One thing that has not been worthy of praise has been the defense. It's still a puzzle Sumlin is trying to piece together so Houston can reach the goals it wants. The offense could average nearly 700 yards a game and lose one here or there with the nation's 111th-ranked defense, a spot the Cougars held last season.

Enter former Dallas Cowboys assistant Brian Stewart, who is implementing a 3-4 scheme. It's a move Houston is hoping will allow guys like linebacker Marcus McGraw to be better utilized and wreak more havoc.

Putting it mildly, Stewart has his work cut out for him.

"Well, we can't do much worse," Sumlin panned. "I think our style will change from more of a bend-don't-break defense to more of an aggressive look. A little more disguise and getting more speed on the field."

If it all comes together, the Cougars could represent the best Conference USA has seen in a long time, if not ever.

The Cougars showed the nation last season what they are capable of, beating the likes of Oklahoma State and Mississippi State on the road as well as a victory over Texas Tech at home. In other words, they were perfect against BCS teams. So they have shown they can win the tough games. And they'll have their chances again this season with return dates vs. Mississippi State and Tech while adding an early-season visit to UCLA.

It's those pesky C-USA letdowns they have to find a way to avoid.

I asked Sumlin if he sensed his team failed to get up for non-BCS foes the way it did the big schools.

"Well I hope not, I don't sense that," Sumlin responded. "I know it's coach speak, but if we learned anything from last year we have to take it one week at a time and better be ready to play or you'll get beat."

"We feel that if we play our absolute best, we have a chance in every game we play," Keenum said. "We have to continue to play at a high level all season."

If the Cougars do, there's no telling what records and awards Keenum could finish his college career with. Maybe he could give Houston an edge over Alabama again.

Offensive Player of the Year:

Case Keenum, QB, Houston: The catalyst behind the nation's best offense is back for one last hurrah and, barring injury, will leave Houston not only as the record holder of most school marks, but many NCAA records too. It will be interesting to watch if he can push for an unheard-of 6,000 yards this season after 5,671 last year.

Defensive Player of the Year:

Bruce Miller, DE, UCF: The reigning defensive player of the year is as clear a choice as Keenum. Miller was fifth in the nation last year with 13 sacks. He's a large part of the reason UCF will be in the minority in C-USA by making its bones on defense. With 13 sacks or more this season, he will pass Miami's Daniel Stubbs for most by a college player in the state of Florida, and you don't need to be reminded of the stars that make up that pool.

Predicted order of finish

East

1. Southern Mississippi: The Eagles are as consistent as it gets in Conference USA, turning in 16 consecutive winning seasons and making a bowl every season since 2001. Larry Fedora's squad looks to continue the trends with an offense that should prove explosive enough. The Eagles have perhaps the second-best offensive player in the league, behind Keenum, in one-time five-star recruit DeAndre Brown at receiver. Defensively, they return the entire front seven, giving them the slight nod in the division. Must-see game: Nov. 20 vs. Houston. Points will be plenty as perhaps the two best teams square off. The week before, a trip to UCF could prove bigger in the division race.

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2. UCF: The defense will be stout, led by Miller, but the questions at quarterback are too big to ignore. Likely starter Rob Calabrese still has to prove he can run the offense. He led the team in passing as a freshman but only started three games in an injury-plagued season in '09. Following the yin-and-yang records in the Knights' recent past would show a losing season is on the way. Expect the chain to finally be broken and for UCF to push Southern Miss for the division. Must-see game: Nov. 13 vs. Southern Miss. As outlined above, this game goes a long way in deciding who wins the East.

3. UAB: The Blazers enjoyed somewhat of a surprise last season, coming one win shy of .500. Gone is the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Joe Webb, but the offense shouldn't slow much. Sophomore David Isabelle takes over and offers much the same as Webb as he was the team's second-leading rusher last season despite being the backup QB. Here's going out on a limb and saying the Blazers surprise again as most have them penciled in at the bottom in the East. Must-see game: Oct. 30 at Southern Miss. If they are going to finish this high in the division, they will need a game like this before a three-game homestand against East division foes.

4. Marshall: Doc Holliday and his recruiting prowess take over a team that earned a bowl win last season. There will be a battle at QB despite Brian Anderson returning for his senior season. A.J. Graham and Clemson transfer Willy Korn will push for the job. Whoever gets it will need to spark an offense that sagged a little by C-USA standards last season. The defense figures to battle UCF for the conference's best. Must-see game: Oct. 13 vs. UCF. This wraps up a tough first five for the Herd, who will have a real chance in each of their final seven. Honorable mention: Sept. 10 vs. West Virginia.

5. East Carolina: There is a lot of turnover for the two-time defending champs, most notably at head coach. Skip Holtz is gone after a very successful run and former Texas Tech defensive coordinator and ECU alumnus Ruffin McNeill enters. He brings with him Lincoln Riley to install the Air Raid offense we saw in Lubbock. But it figures to be a rough start as only seven starters return, two on defense.Must-see game: Oct. 16 vs. N.C. State. It will be the Pirates' third and perhaps best chance at a win against an ACC foe. A home win vs. an intrastate rival could boost ECU early.

6. Memphis: Much like ECU, there are a lot of new faces, including head coach Larry Porter, a former running back for the Tigers. First things first: Finding a QB. University of Miami transfer Cannon Smith, son of FedEx chair Fred Smith, figures to be the leading candidate. Also worrisome is finding new players to man the running back and receiver spots. The defense has a new staff of leaders that includes former Alabama head coach Mike Dubose to improve a unit that finished 116th in the nation last year. Must-see game: Nov. 6 vs. Tennessee. With the Tigers not seeming ready to challenge C-USA yet, a home date against the state's premier program will be targeted all season.

West

1. Houston: As mentioned, the nation's most prolific offense. The Cougars are heavy favorites to advance out of the West and make it back to the conference title game, where they lost season. If the new-look defense can hold up, this team could be poised for big things this year. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at UCLA. It will be their first of three games against BCS teams and will be the Cougars' first chance to show what they can do on a bigger stage.

2. SMU: June Jones is doing it once again. He helped bring an end to SMU's 25-season bowl drought last year, taking the Mustangs to a convincing win in the Hawaii Bowl. Houston is the heavy favorite, but SMU will give the Cougars a serious run for their money. The loss of running back Shawnbrey McNeal (1,188 yards last season) will hurt, but blossoming sophomore QB Kyle Padron will throw for numbers we're used to seeing out of a Jones team. Must-see game: Oct. 23 vs. Houston. The scoreboard could explode by the time this one's done. With a win, the Mustangs could be a surprise West winner.

Donald Buckram is back at UTEP after rushing for 1,594 yards last season. (Getty Images)  
Donald Buckram is back at UTEP after rushing for 1,594 yards last season. (Getty Images)  
3. Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane failed to get to a bowl for the first time since 2004 last season, but a return to the postseason seems on its way as Todd Graham gets junior G.J. Kinne back under center. There is no shortage of offensive talent with nine starters back, but like most in the conference, the defense needs to be shored up. By C-USA standards last season, the nation's 85th-best defense was good enough, but only five starters return. Of note, Tulsa lost three games by a touchdown or less last season, including a seven-point loss to Boise State. Must-see game: Oct. 30 at Notre Dame. In the grand scheme the game doesn't mean too much being out of conference, but a nationally televised game at arguably the most famous stadium? They'll be jacked.

4. UTEP: The best player in the league you haven't heard of? Miners RB Donald Buckram, who ran for 1,594 yards last year with 21 total touchdowns. And Trevor Vittatoe, a player QB-friendly Mike Price loves, is on the verge of passing Jordan Palmer as UTEP's all-time passing leader. A staggering 10 seniors should start on offense. The problem? Defense, of course. The Miners have flip-flopped between a 3-3-5 back to a 4-3 in hopes of bolstering the 110th-ranked unit. The heat will be on Price without a bowl bid. Must-see game: Sept. 10 at Houston. The Miners will try to pull a repeat of last season's 58-41 upset.

5. Rice: Is a rebound coming Rice's way? The backfield has plenty of talent with Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi back at QB, where he is being pushed by Miami transfer Taylor Cook. They also welcome Michigan transfer and YouTube sensation Sam McGuffie leading a nice RB corps. Like all other conference foes, the defense must improve after allowing a nation-worst 43.1 points per game last year. It's not good when a safety is your leading tackler. Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. Baylor. It concludes back-to-back home games against BCS teams following Northwestern's visit on Sept. 18.

6. Tulane: It's Year 4 for Bob Toledo and it's his first time returning his starting QB with sophomore Ryan Griffin. The offense is being tweaked slightly to be a little more vertical and, hopefully, explosive. The defense has some promise as the unit was the conference's best against the pass last season. But the D only returns three starters, all of whom play in the secondary. They will need some help from an entirely new front seven. Must-see game: Sept. 11 vs. Ole Miss. Scoring a home game against an SEC team is nice. Running with the Rebels would be even nicer.

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