C-USA preview: With Keenum back, expect Houston to take off

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Keenum has already thrown for 13,586 yards and 107 touchdowns at Houston. (US Presswire)  
Keenum has already thrown for 13,586 yards and 107 touchdowns at Houston. (US Presswire)  

Houston senior Case Keenum might be the best college quarterback east of Palo Alto, Calif. He also might be the nation's worst tackler.

His past two tackles -- or make that attempted tackles -- resulted in Keenum receiving a concussion and a torn ACL.

"Every time I throw a pick it's something I want to do, try and go and kill the guy [who made the interception]," Keenum said. "I definitely want to hit him as hard as I can."

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In the Cougars' second game last season, Keenum suffered a concussion while attempting a tackle after throwing a third-quarter interception to UTEP's Travaun Nixon. He didn't play the rest of the game.

Keenum returned a week later against UCLA. This time, he was intercepted by linebacker Akeem Ayers. Keenum's attempted tackle of Ayers resulted in a torn ACL in his right knee, ending Keenum's season -- and nearly his college career.

However, Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility and he gained a new philosophy on what to do when he throws an interception this fall.

"I thought about it," Keenum said. "I've joked I'll curl up in a fetal position. I don't know what's going to happen. We don't practice it, but I'll definitely be less involved."

Keenum's return not only makes the Cougars the team to beat in Conference USA's West Division but also gives C-USA arguably the deepest, most talented group of quarterbacks in the nation. C-USA returns four quarterbacks that threw for at least 3,000 yards last season.

Keenum is not included in that group but you certainly can make a strong case for Case as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. In his past two full seasons -- 2008, '09 -- he averaged 396 yards passing a game, while throwing for 88 touchdowns and only 26 interceptions.

"He's just a surgeon with the football," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "He could put the ball wherever he needed."

For his career, Keenum has thrown for 13,586 yards and 107 touchdowns and is only 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns from setting the NCAA career records in both categories. Based on his sophomore and junior seasons, Keenum should break both records by Houston's ninth game at UAB on Nov. 5.

As staggering as those numbers are, Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is even more impressed by Keenum's attitude. Instead of moping on the bench after tearing his ACL against UCLA, and possibly seeing his college career end, Keenum was on the sideline going over the play list and helping freshman quarterback David Piland.

"As excited as we are [to have him back], he's even more excited," Sumlin said. "He's a tremendous player, a tremendous person that does everything right. He's a great team guy, he's already graduated and in grad school. He got married. He's pretty much a grown man.

"We not only got a great player back, but an extra coach."

Keenum, 23, said from the moment he was injured last season, until he learned he received an additional year of eligibility, his life was an "emotional roller coaster."

"I was all over the place," Keenum said. "At first, I thought I'm going to brace it up and play. And then I went from what's next? Maybe we can get a sixth year? I went back and forth, but it all works out if you trust in what you believe in and I believe God has a plan."

Keenum said his strong Christian faith helped him in dealing with the possibility his college career might have been over.

"It played a huge part," said Keenum, who is involved heavily in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at UH. "If I didn't have my faith, my relationship in Christ, I knew I wouldn't make it through what I had to go through.

"I was reminded that football will be done for me at some time. What's really important is not how many awards you win, how many games you win, how many yards you throw for. It's who you live for."

Compared with last season, this year is off to a great start. A few days before his planned January engagement to his longtime girlfriend Kimberly Caddell -- fittingly at UH's Robertson Stadium -- he learned he had received the additional year of eligibility.

"It made it a pretty good week [in January] that 2011 started a lot better than 2010 ended," Keenum said. "The NCAA said yes and Kimberly said yes."

Keenum, who was married June 11, said returning from the knee injury for his first game on Sept. 3 will be "very emotional." And, irony of ironies, it just happens to be against UCLA.

"I'm not looking at it as a revenge game," Keenum said. "I'm not trying to get them back. Honestly, I'm over last year. I'm over anything that happened in the past. Our 2011 team has not proved anything yet. I may be on some [preseason] watch lists and we're picked to win this many games, but when it comes down to it we haven't done anything.

"I'm not looking at the past. We just happen to be playing a really good team from California."

Playing a really good team from California with possibly the best quarterback outside of California.

CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli predicts order of finish:

East

1. UCF

Last season was easily the best year in UCF history. The program won 11 games for the first time, beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl and finished the year ranked in the Top 25. Can the Knights do it again? They seem poised to as the team accomplished everything in 2010 with a freshman under center in Jeff Godfrey and he should improve in his sophomore season. On offense the team also has a lovely trio of running backs in Latavius Murray, Brynn Harvey and Ronnie Weaver. Helping matters will be a defense that features a star player on each level in defensive end Troy Davis, linebacker Josh Linam and cornerback Josh Robinson.

2. Southern Mississippi (tie)

There's a lot to take pride in with the Southern Miss football program. For instance, the Eagles haven't had a losing season in 17 years. At the same time, however, the team has never been able to get over the hump as it hasn't won 10 games since 1988, when a certain gunslinger with an affinity for text messages was just having fun out there. It's possible though that 2011 can be the year Southern Miss finally reaches that double-digit win plateau again. Plenty of starters return on offense with quarterback Austin Davis and running back Kendrick Harvey playing star roles. The deciding factor will be how well the defense performs now that Dan Disch is running it and implementing a 4-2-5 scheme. Thankfully, having a player like linebacker Korey Williams around never hurts.

2. East Carolina (tie)

The 2010 season got off to a great start for the Pirates and Ruffin McNeil, opening 5-2 with wins over Tulsa and N.C. State, before the wheels fell off. Actually, the wheels didn't fall off as much as they spontaneously combusted and the defense started giving up points like Oprah gives away free cars. The key to a turnaround this season will be whether or not that defense can learn how to stop anybody. With an offense featuring Dominique Davis at quarterback and strong receivers in Lance Lewis and Michael Bowman, the defense won't need to be perfect, but any kind of improvement would go a long way.

4. Marshall

Building Marshall into a perennial contender in Conference USA won't be easy for Doc Holliday, and many flaws were evident in a 5-7 season last year. There's reason for optimism in the future, but to expect the remodel to be finished this season would be foolish. When you consider that five of Marshall's first six games are against West Virginia, Southern Miss, Virginia Tech, Louisville and UCF, a slow start appears likely. The key will be whether the Herd can survive that stretch and dig out of that hole in the second half. Those final seven games could be an indication of where this program is headed under Holliday.

5. UAB

The Blazers had a rather disappointing 4-8 finish in 2010, but in reality, things weren't as bad as they seemed. This is a team that lost to both Tennessee and Mississippi State on the road by a combined eight points, and the Vols needed overtime to dispose of them. Plenty of starters are back from last year's team, including quarterback Bryan Ellis and running back Pat Shed behind an offensive line that returns four starters. If the defense can improve under new coordinator Tommy West, those narrow defeats could become victories and UAB might wind up with its first winning season since 2004.

6. Memphis

I would try to come up with reasons to be optimistic about Memphis in 2011, but honestly, I can't find many. Larry Porter's team went 1-11 in 2010 and only one of those losses was by less than two touchdowns. I don't see reason to believe that the Tigers will improve much in 2011, though it is possible that the team might manage two victories this season. Cool?

West

1. Houston

Case Keenum is rather important to Houston. A team that was considered a potential BCS buster last year finished 5-7 after losing Keenum for the year. Now, in 2011, Keenum is back and so is Houston. Keenum will likely finish the year as the most prolific passer in college history as he's poised to surpass Hawaii's Timmy Chang. Should Keenum continue to light up defenses around the country this season then it's entirely possible that Houston could sneak into that BCS bowl game it was supposed to crash last season.

2. Tulsa

The big question for Tulsa this season coming off a 10-3 record will be whether replacing coach Todd Graham sets the program back at all. Personally, with the talent Tulsa has coming back, odds are new coach Bill Blankenship will be smart enough not trying to fix what isn't broken. While Keenum gets most of the national attention, Tulsa's G.J. Kinne is just as capable of putting up points as he combined for 38 touchdowns through the air and on the ground last year. Give Kinne a talent like Damaris Johnson -- the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yardage -- to play with, and this is an offense that will lead to many sleepless nights for defensive coordinators.

3. Southern Methodist

June Jones' first three years at SMU have been exactly what any SMU fan could hope for. The team has seen improvement every season, culminating in a berth in the conference title game last season. Sure, the year ended on a sour note with a loss to UCF in that game and then to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl, but 2011 may be the season SMU finally puts the 1986 "death penalty" in the past. The Mustangs have 18 returning starters, including quarterback Kyle Padron and the conference's leading rusher in Zach Line. From top to bottom, this might be the most talented team in the conference.

4. Tulane

Tulane hasn't had a winning season since 2002, and I'm not sure 2011 will be the year the Green Wave finally crash upon the shores of the postseason. The biggest question with Tulane this year may be whether or not head coach Bob Toledo replies, as he has been in charge of the past four losing seasons. There's talent on this squad, particularly on defense with players like Trent Mackey, Dezman Moses and Shakiel Smith, but I'm just not sure there's enough for the Wave to overcome the potent offenses of the conference.

5. Rice

Is it just me, or does the 10-win season that Rice had in 2008 feel like a decade ago? I don't see anything close to another double-digit victory total this year, but the Rice offense is capable of putting up points. The problem is that the defense is just as capable of giving them right back, and while Rice's offense can be potent, it's not like the conference isn't littered with high-scoring attacks. 

6. UTEP

When Mike Price first came to El Paso, the Miners experienced some success, putting up back-to-back eight-win seasons. In the five years since, the team hasn't managed to win more games than it has lost. Unfortunately for the Miners, I don't see that changing in 2011, and odds are that another losing year will bring Price's tenure to an end.

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