Originally posted on FOX Sports  |  Last updated 10/31/11
Before the 2011 college football season, there was boundless optimism bursting from all pockets and corners of the Lone Star State. There was a crop of fresh, young Longhorns offensive playmakers ready to step into the national spotlight and a bright, shiny new 'Horns-only ESPN TV network launching in households from Austin to Amarillo. In College Station, there was an Aggies squad ranked in the preseason top 10, looking to capture the school's first conference title since 1998. The Baylor fans in Waco had an RGIII Heisman campaign up and running by June, TCU was coming off the school's first major bowl win since 1939, and the SMU faithful were pumped about Year Four of the June Jones Era. Texas Tech was bringing back seven offensive and seven defensive starters in Lubbock and even at Rice, there was preseason chatter about a potential Conference USA title at student hangout House of Pies. Yet, here we are, entering the third month of the college football season, and only one team from the state of Texas boasts a perfect record. Only one team from the Lone Star State has even a glimmer of a BCS bowl dream left. Only one team has a quarterback hurling nine touchdowns on a Thursday night in the pouring rain. The Houston Cougars, now ranked 13th in the latest BCS rankings and 14th in this week's AP poll, are a very quiet 8-0 after Thursday's 73-34 win over crosstown rival Rice in the Bayou Bucket Bowl. With conference realignment dominating headlines and the rumor mill roaring about teams coming and going since the start of the season, Houston -- a team that's been all but dismissed from the NCAA's version of "The BCS Conference Dating Game" this season -- is red hot. As the Big 12 has spent the bulk of the season grasping, hustling and ultimately failing to keep Texas A&M and Mizzou in its grips, and then inviting TCU and West Virginia as alternative options, Houston -- a program right in the heart of Big 12 country with longtime Southwest Conference roots -- is having the best year of all the other teams in the conversation. Why Houston's been left on the outside of the Big 12 looking in despite its ideal geographic location comes down to dollars and cents, not sense. The assumption is Houston -- undefeated season or not -- could never provide the same attention, quality of athletics, as an institution like West Virginia. But Houston athletics and booster dollars each appear to be on the rise. In 2010, the university unveiled plans for a $160 million upgrade for its athletic facilities: a $120 million replacement for Robertson Stadium and a $40 million renovation for Hofheinz Pavilion. The incredibly named Welcome Wilson Sr., a prominent Houston alumnus, has said multiple times that the school's alumni and supporters were willing to do whatever's necessary to make the Big 12 a possibility. "The University of Houston needs to be in the Big 12. That is without question," Wilson said in early October. "We are in position to build a $91 million stadium. That's not chump change. We would like to build a $120 million stadium, but we can build a stadium, without question." And, yet, unless the Big 12 expands from a 10-team conference and brings in one additional league partner to make 12, it appears as though UH won't be joining former SWC league members Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU in the conference its alumni so covet. At least, for now. Whereas other surprise unbeatens Clemson and Kansas State lost to conference foes this weekend, the Cougars did what they've done all season -- won behind their quarterback's golden arm in relative anonymity on cable TV, without much national media attention. With Houston trailing by double digits in the first quarter Thursday, sixth-year senior Case Keenum responded by tossing for 537 yards, including nine touchdown tosses. NCAA records were broken -- both career and single game -- and Keenum's stat line was good enough to make the bottom line ticker on ESPN the next morning. However, lost amid an unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series and NBA lockout talks, Keenum's superhuman effort didn't exactly generate the same buzz as Andrew Luck or Landry Jones' Week 9 performances. And that's all good. Par for the course, really. Houston's accomplishments haven't exactly been celebrated by the media this season. I'm included on that list of offenders, having dismissed the Cougars a few weeks ago as members of the "second tier" of BCS contenders. But this team isn't looking for my respect, "College Gameday" hosting gigs or riveting Tom Rinaldi-voiced over tearjerker pieces on "SportsCenter." They've been there and done that. Last summer, Case Keenum made a trip up to Bristol, Conn., and did the interview rounds, something referred to as "the carwash" up at the Worldwide Leader's headquarters. Coming off a 10-4 2009 campaign in which Keenum lit up scoreboards each week, there was Heisman hype, NFL draft buzz and a widely held assumption that the offensively loaded Cougars would win the Conference USA title behind their star quarterback's rocket arm. But after Keenum's 2010 season ended prematurely with a horrific knee injury in a humbling 31-13 loss to UCLA last October, that was all washed away in an instant. Houston finished the year with a 5-7 record. Between the end of his 2010 campaign and the summer of 2011, Keenum kept a low profile, rehabbing his knee and focusing on his life outside the game of football. When it was announced that Keenum would be granted a sixth year of eligibility, there were no "Breaking News" alerts on the national sports sites or fancy profiles. In the months that followed, there were no return trips to Bristol, no Heisman buzz and no place for Houston in the preseason Top 25 rankings. Keenum graduated in May and married his longtime girlfriend, Kimberly, in June. Those were accomplishments the quarterback took pride in; not magazine covers. And yet, sure enough, here we are in Week 10 of the college football season, and Keenum and the Cougars are just a few conference wins and a Boise State loss away from the school's first BCS bowl appearance. The quarterback's comeback story has been all but lost on the national media, but so has Houston's surprise campaign. Up and down the roster, they're getting contributions from unsung heroes and big plays out of guys that were considered another year away. 2010? Sure. But, the Coogz weren't supposed to do this in 2011. Not 12 months after Keenum's torn-up knee. And yet, here they are, undefeated and on the cusp of the BCS Top 10, champing at the bit. There's a sense of disappointment about how way the Big 12 situation's played out for Houston. And if the coveted Big 12 invite is the be-all, end-all for Houston this year, the Coogz are likely going to come up short in 2011. But a potential BCS bowl bid, a likely Heisman Trophy trip to New York City for a sixth-year senior, a conference title and an undefeated season aren't exactly bad consolation prizes. Nor is being the best college football team in the state of Texas. That's exactly what these guys are. It's about time we take notice.
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