A surprising upset made Houston’s return to the Top 25 a brief one, and got its Conference USA schedule off to a poor start. Getting their first league win could help the 23rd-ranked Cougars remain in the rankings a bit longer this time.
Houston will try to use its high-powered offense to continue its success against Tulane on Saturday in New Orleans.
The Cougars (4-1, 0-1) are the first C-USA team to beat three BCS conference opponents since Louisville in 2003, and the first non-BCS team to do it this season following a 31-24 win at Mississippi State last Saturday.
That victory returned Houston to the Top 25 after a 58-41 loss at Texas-El Paso opened conference play a week earlier and dropped it out of the rankings after climbing as high as 12th.
“That comes with winning and dropping out of it comes with losing,” coach Kevin Sumlin said of the team’s exit from the poll after being ranked for the first time since Sept. 15, 1991.
“Talking to guys, I know they’re not satisfied,” he said. “That’s the edge I’m talking about. With all of the other things that come from winning, it’s not as important as being satisfied with where you are right now.”
The Cougars have a goal of winning the West division, and the non-conference wins - including a stunning 45-35 victory at then-No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sept. 12 - don’t appear to be much of a consolation.
“I heard someone say that we’re tied for first in the SEC and Big 12 South, but tied for last place in C-USA,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “None of that matters, what we’ve done in non-conference. Those wins were good, but that shows how much they mean.”
Keenum is leading an offense that is the nation’s most potent, gaining an average of 569.2 yards. The junior leads the country in passing yards (2,130), while topping the FBS with 17 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions.
He completed 39 of 52 for 434 yards with four TDs and two picks last week, but credits his receivers for the offense’s success.
“I was watching a rerun of the game and I saw how many yards after catch we have, and it’s just amazing how those guys get up the field after they catch it,” Keenum said. “It says a lot about the talent of our guys and the schemes the coaches give us. That’s the plan, to get the ball in the hands of those guys, and they can do special things with it.”
The Cougars’ offense boasts four of the top seven receivers in the conference, as junior James Cleveland, sophomores Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards and freshman Charles Sims have combined for 140 receptions, 1,633 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Houston will have to contend with a strong Tulane pass defense, which is allowing a conference-low 197.2 yards per game.
The Green Wave (2-3, 0-2) allowed 207 passing yards to Marshall last Saturday, but turned the ball over four times, including a fumble return for a TD, en route to a 31-10 loss.
“We lost the football game because of the mistakes we made with the turnovers,” coach Bob Toledo said. “We didn’t take care of our business, but we want to put that game behind and keep playing hard.”
Toledo could use a better performance from quarterback Joe Kemp after the sophomore went 14 for 23 for 116 yards with an interception last week. He has four touchdown passes with five picks on the season.
Kemp will get a chance to exploit a Houston defense that ranks among the worst in the nation, giving up an average of 450.4 yards.
The Cougars are 10-4 all-time against Tulane, including a six-game winning streak that has seen them outscore the Green Wave by an average of 22.5 points.
Keenum threw four scoring passes to help Houston win the last meeting, 42-14 on Nov. 8.
“This is the biggest game of the season right now,” Carrier said. “We didn’t have a very good performance against our last C-USA opponent so … it has to be the biggest. We’re last in our league right now and haven’t won a game. Our last performance wasn’t up to par. We need this win.”