Wed Jul 07 01:54pm EDT
Part of the Doc's Mid-Major Week.
If you've only got enough for one bet this fall, first of all, gambling is probably not the best outlet for your dwindling funds. But if you insist, the safest wager on the board is on Houston quarterback Case Keenum as the nation's leading passer for the second year in a row. After leading the nation in total offense as a sophomore, Keenum obliterated the field in '09. He was the only QB nationally to pass for 40 touchdowns or ring up more than 5,000 yards, outpacing runner-up Levi Brown (Troy) by almost 1,400 yards; he finished an eyelash behind Colt McCoy as the national leader in completion percentage. If his 2010 output equals his numbers from either of the last two seasons, Keenum will pass Timmy Chang and Graham Harrell, respectively, to go out as Division I's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
Keenum's team also won 10 games last year, beat a pair of Big 12 favorites that eventually finished in the top 25 and remained in the polls itself for 13 of the final 14 weeks of the regular season. Twenty years ago, nearly identical stats combined with a top-25 season earned Houston QB Andre Ware the 1989 Heisman Trophy, and got his successor, David Klingler, on the cover of Sports Illustrated after finishing fifth in Heisman voting in 1990. (The winner that year was another stat-driven star from a high-flying upstart, BYU's Ty Detmer.) The NFL made both Ware (No. 7 overall to Detroit in '90) and Klingler (No. 6 to Cincinnati in '92) top-10 draft picks.
Keenum appeared on 24 Heisman ballots last year, 433 fewer than listed Ware in '89, and will probably be lucky to go in the later rounds next April. The difference is a stark reminder not only of how boring the crazy, record-smashing passing numbers from far-flung places like Hawaii and Texas Tech have become, but how much smarter (read: more skeptical) most observers have become about them – precisely because the likes of Ware, Klingler, Colt Brennan and every quarterback ever associated with Mike Leach have been such flops outside of the cozy confines of "the system," where everyone seems to look like the next coming of Joe Montana.
Keenum defies that mold in a couple ways; for one thing, he has obvious athleticism, and he's consistently produced against non-Conference USA competition. (See: Last year's high-scoring wins over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State and a 387-yard, four-touchdown effort at Oklahoma State in 2008.) But if the question is, "Is Case Keenum a 'system quarterback'?" the evidence is fairly one-sided. His big yardage numbers are a direct result of the fact that he throws way more passes than anyone else, putting it up 50 times per game last year; in seven games decided by a touchdown or less, Keenum put it up at least 50 times in all seven.
And a disproportionate number of those throws were of the "long handoff" variety: Short, high-percentage bubble screens, swing passes, slants and quick hitches designed to move the chains with run-after-catch yards, a system tailor-made for a smart guy with a mediocre arm. (Texas Tech fans should know: His offensive coordinator the last two years was Dana Holgorsen, a longtime protegé of Leach's dink-and-dunk-oriented "Air Raid" in Lubbock.) Keenum's average completion last year covered 11.2 yards, which qualifies as "average" if you're being generous.
But the worst epithet you can hurl at any quarterback is "interception-prone," a brand Keenum suddenly bears after serving up three picks to East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship Game and a whopping six to Air Force in a straight-up meltdown in the Armed Forces Bowl. Those two losses alone, against two of the best defenses on Houston's schedule, did more than anything else to paint Keenum as a mere mortal beneath his coat of gaudy box scores against lackluster competition.
Of course, Keenum will be defined mainly by Houston's ongoing success: The Cougars are again favored to win Conference USA and have a shot at a coveted BCS bid if they can get out of road trips to UCLA and Texas Tech. Holgorsen is gone to Oklahoma State, but three different receivers who each went over 1,000 yards on at least 85 catches last year are back, along with a pair of running backs who combined for more than 2,000 yards of total offense their own selves. The mind boggles at every statistical turn.
But with the 12th regular season game, the conference championship game and an infinite number of bowl games – not to mention a league where almost nobody plays defense – they don't add up to quite as much as they used to. And unless they add up to
UH's first conference championship in 14 years a conference championship against a relatively prone field of contenders, the bottom line will be a disappointment.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.