HOUSTON It has come down to characterizing a 30-point win as a big test. A 500-yard offensive day is a grind. A "championship drive" is one in which you push the score from 23-7 to 30-7.
"It gave us coaches a chance to yell at some guys," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said.
He said this about a 37-7 win over SMU (6-5, 4-3 Conference USA) for his 10th-ranked Cougars on Saturday in Robertson Stadium. That's how far this has come. Houston (11-0, 7-0) has to construct an alternate reality in order to justify normal coaching tactics.
"If you look at the majority of the game, it was a close game," Sumlin said. "I think our fans, and a little bit our players, get a little jittery if we're not scoring every time we have the ball."
This is all true. It was a windy Saturday in Houston, and it was senior day, and for really the first time in a long time the nation's eyes were turned toward Houston football. Everything was a little off, including the Cougars offense. Sumlin said he noticed some teary eyes as some of the seniors took the field for the final time at Robertson Stadium, and that didn't help.
Houston's first two drives stalled in the red zone, which was unusual. It's not a place the Cougars typically spend much time. Quarterback Case Keenum was never sacked, but he spent a good bit of the first half scrambling around. There weren't many holes for UH running backs, either.
If you were just meeting the Cougars for the first time as a lot of people around the nation were you probably got the wrong impression. They looked darn near traditional for most of the game. It was all quarterback sacks and stopping the run and big hits on special teams, not 40-yard bombs and slip screens. With a minute left in the third quarter, it was still a two-possession game, 16-0.
This was the nation's leading offense?
Well, yes, it turns out. It is. Just when you thought they had an off night, the Cougars ended up with 513 yards. Keenum was 30-for-45 for 318 yards and one touchdown. The backup quarterback, Cotton Turner, came in at the end and threw a 47-yard touchdown pass.
So everything was just like always. Except that's not how the Cougars perceived it.
"I think that's the best defense we've played all year," Keenum said. "They made us earn everything we got tonight. It was a tough win."
And yet the Cougars did earn it, and they did win, and it wasn't even close. They dominated the game, just not the way they usually do. This was a defensive performance that didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but wasn't exactly what Houston hangs its hat on, either. Of particular impact was linebacker Sammy Brown, who had three sacks and 10 tackles. Brown, a senior juco transfer, has dominated the conference and changed Houston's defense. At the conclusion of Saturday's game, he led the conference in sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (26) and leads a once-ripped Cougars defense that now ranks third in C-USA in scoring defense (22.8 points per game).
"That's the best defense I've ever seen played here," said Keenum, who is in his sixth season at Houston.
If you wanted to see it this way, Saturday could be a preview of what Houston might look like in, oh, the Sugar Bowl against, oh, Alabama, or some other team with a defensive front the Cougars couldn't push around, and a gang of linebackers who never seemed to miss a tackle.
The Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl both had representatives credentialed for Saturday's game, after which Houston was one of two undefeated teams in college football.
They now have to face a hot Tulsa team for the West Division title. It is a game Sumlin expects will be another grinder, however that may be defined. He thinks his team might face some pressure situations, and he thinks Saturday's 30-point win over SMU was good preparation.
"I think there's some real value in being in a game like that tonight before we get to Tulsa," he said, "because quite frankly, the last four or five weeks, our guys have been on the bench in the third quarter."
You can say it has come down to this, which it has. But there is a reason Saturday was a little tearful at UH. The quarterback is a sixth-year senior who thought his career was over when he blew out his knee last fall. He throws to receivers he's been working with for four and five years. They have been the hot team before, and they have blown it, and here they are again.
It has come down to this, but it has built up to it, too.