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October 31, 2011

Monday with Mike: Bad timing for Houston

There are six unbeaten teams left, and five of them are in the top five in the BCS standings.

Then there's Houston, the "other" unbeaten. There is no talk of a potential national title; heck, it's not close to being a given that the Cougars even make the BCS if they're unbeaten.

The Cougars are 8-0; they're 14th in both polls used by the BCS and are 13th in the BCS standings.

Their biggest problem - well, aside from a weak schedule - might be that all this is a season too late. If the Cougars had started 8-0 last season? Well, chances are they would be in the top 10 and record-setting quarterback Case Keenum would be squarely in the Heisman hunt.

Houston received a ton of preseason publicity going into the 2010 season. Keenum was coming off a strong 2009 campaign and Houston was being talked about as a potential BCS-buster. But Keenum was lost for the season with a knee injury in the third game and Houston struggled to a 5-7 record.

Keenum received a sixth season of eligibility (he also was hurt in 2006), but neither he nor Houston got much preseason pub. That hasn't really changed. The schedule hasn't helped; the lone Big Six foe of the season was in the opener, a 38-34 victory over UCLA.

But Keenum certainly is doing his part to gain attention. He has thrown for 3,244 yards and 32 TDs this season; 534 of the yards and nine of the TD passes came in an other-worldly performance Thursday night in a 73-34 victory over Rice in a game in which the Owls once led 17-7.

"That was probably the most fun I've ever had playing football," Keenum told reporters afterward.

[ Related: Huguenin: Breaking down the BCS standings ]

Alas, that performance came on the same night as St. Louis' unreal comeback in Game 6 of the World Series and no one really noticed.

But nine TD passes? Come on - that's impressive in a backyard game of touch. Keenum has thrown 15 TD passes in the past two weeks, and he has completed just 48 passes in those two games. That means that 31 percent of his passes in the past two games have gone for TDs.

Yes, Houston's offense is a pass-happy version of the spread, but the numbers Keenum is putting up still are remarkable. His 15 TD passes in the past two games are more than 72 teams have for the season. He is completing 71.9 percent of his passes for the season and has tossed just three picks in 303 attempts.

He set the NCAA career record for TD passes against Rice; he now has 139, five more than previous record-holder Graham Harrell of Texas Tech. He already held the NCAA career record for total offense and is closing in on career records for passing yards (he has 16,805; the record is 17,702 by Hawaii's Timmy Chang) and completions (1,336; the record is 1,403 by Harrell).

"You see our team jumping around with him at the end," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday. "Our guys understand that, they know that, and I think they appreciate where they are right now and what's at stake."

Sumlin's future is at stake, too. He will be a hot commodity on the coaching carousel. A perfect regular season, though, and Sumlin might become the hottest commodity. Sumlin, 47, played linebacker at Purdue. He has coached in the Pac-12 (Washington State), Big Ten (his alma mater and Minnesota) and in the Big 12 (Texas A&M and Oklahoma, where he was co-offensive coordinator when he was hired by Houston after the 2007 season). He prefers a pass-happy - i.e., fan-friendly - offense.

Houston leads the nation in total offense (612.4 yards per game), passing offense (453.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (52.3 points per game). The Cougars also average 159.1 rushing yards per game (on 5.1 yards per carry) and have 20 rushing TDs. They run the ball 31.3 times per game, which is tied for 107th nationally. But their per-game average is tied for 60th.

The defense is another story. Houston is 86th in total defense (416.5 ypg) and 50th in scoring defense (24.8 ppg). Indeed, that porous defense is why the Cougars aren't a lock to win Conference USA. They have games left against UAB, Tulane, SMU and Tulsa; the first two are gimmes, especially UAB, which is horrible against the pass (hmmm - 10 TD passes, anyone?). But the last two will be tough.

And even if Houston does finish unbeaten, will it be enough to garner a BCS bid? The SEC is a lock to get two bids. The Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten also have a shot at two each, especially the Big 12 and Pac-12. Boise State is a lock to get one if it is unbeaten. Keenum seems undeterred.

"We're a pretty special team," he said after the victory over Rice. "We felt the same way since we started. I think other people's minds are changing."

Toothless Gators
How's this for a turnaround: Florida's game with Vanderbilt next week is vital for the Gators if they want to gain bowl eligibility.

The Gators fell to 4-4 Saturday with a 24-20 loss to Georgia; it was Florida's fourth consecutive conference loss, which hadn't happened since 1979 - when the Gators finished 0-10-1 in then-coach Charley Pell's first season.

Florida managed just 226 yards of offense, including minus-19 on the ground. The Gators have scored just 47 points in their past four games (they averaged 43.6 in 2008, when they won the national title just three seasons ago); that's the worst four-game stretch since they scored just 23 in a four-game stretch in 1988, when an offense centered on Emmitt Smith couldn't function when Smith was injured.

Florida hasn't finished below .500 in SEC play since 1986, but there's a real danger of that this season. The Gators are 2-4 in league play with games left against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

A few other streaks also could end: Florida is in danger of not going to a bowl for the first time since 1990, when it was on probation, and its 20-game winning streak against Vanderbilt also could end. Coincidentally, the last time the Gators lost to Vandy was during that 1988 season. Florida's current streak of 21 consecutive bowls is the second-longest in the nation.

Part - but just part - of Florida's problem is that it has played four consecutive ranked teams; the last time that happened was in 1971. Starting quarterback John Brantley missed all or part of the previous three games, but he played Saturday. He had some success in the first half, but Florida managed just 12 total second-half yards, which was a painful reminded that the Gators' biggest problems center on the lack of offensive playmakers and an ineffective and depth-shy line.

"Obviously, I didn't do a very good job of getting our team ready," coach Will Muschamp told reporters afterward.

Muschamp's first season as a head coach started well, with four consecutive victories, but it has gone sour quickly. The Gators are 114th nationally with a minus-1 turnover margin (16 turnovers, just eight forced turners) and have committed the most penalties (75) in the nation. They lost two fumbles Saturday and committed 14 penalties, their second-highest total of the season (they had 16 in a win over Tennessee).

Each of the past two first-year Florida coaches had a few issues in their first seasons, but nothing like this. Ron Zook went 8-5 with a bowl loss in 2002, but the Gators were 6-2 in the SEC that season, including an upset of fifth-ranked Georgia. Urban Meyer went 9-3 in 2005, with a bowl win; the Gators were 5-3 in the SEC that season, including an upset of fourth-ranked Georgia.

It was the second season for each coach, though, that was the true indicator. The Gators again went 8-5 with a bowl loss in Zook's second season and he was fired seven games into the 2003 season. In Meyer's second season, Florida went 13-1 and won the national title - the first of two in a three-season stretch.

Florida's defense has a chance to be quite good next season, as there is just one senior starter. The offense, though, is going to have a new starting quarterback, a new starting tailback, at least one new starting wide receiver and - likely - a reshuffled line that will have at least one new starter. Muschamp's background is on defense, and he had better make sure that unit is stout next season or he could be coaching for his job in 2013.

Grid bits
Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman has an NFL background and it shows: He too often seems to be coaching not to lose rather than coaching to win. A&M lost for the third time Saturday, this time falling 38-31 to Missouri in overtime. It's the third time the Aggies have blown a double-digit halftime lead and lost; it was the second time it happened at home (the other was against Oklahoma State). In their losses, the Aggies scored nine second-half points against Oklahoma State, three second-half points against Arkansas and three points total in the second half and overtime against Missouri. A&M gets Oklahoma next week and also has games remaining against Kansas State and Texas. Thus, a season that began with talk about being a national-title dark horse could end up with the Aggies finishing 7-5 or even 6-6. Yep, that's a great way to enter the SEC.

Some round-robin results that leave you scratching your head, Michigan State edition. Michigan State beats Wisconsin, which pounded Nebraska - and Nebraska beats Michigan State. Michigan beats Notre Dame, which pounded Michigan State - and Michigan State beats Michigan.

Some other round-robin results: Kansas State beats Texas Tech, which beats Oklahoma - and OU routs K-State. Rutgers beats Syracuse, which beats West Virginia - and WVU beats Rutgers. North Carolina beats Virginia, which beats Miami - and Miami beats UNC. UCLA beats Oregon State, which beats Arizona - and Arizona routs UCLA. And here's a four-way: Southern Miss routs SMU, which routs UCF, which beats Marshall - and Marshall beats Southern Miss.

Five more rushers surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau Saturday, making it six to have reached the mark this season. The leader is Virginia Tech's David Wilson, who ran for 148 yards in the Hokies' narrow win over Duke and now has 1,185. San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, Missouri's Henry Josey, Washington's Chris Polk, Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey and Penn State's Silas Redd went over 1,000 Saturday. Hillman has done it in seven games and leads the nation in yards per game. Wilson, who has played nine games, is third in yards per game. There were 48 1,000-yard rushers in 2010, with 53 in '09, 54 in '08, 56 in '07, 36 in '06 and 46 in '05.

North Carolina TB Giovani Bernard has been overshadowed in his league by fellow freshman Sammy Watkins of Clemson, but Bernard has rushed for 965 yards. UNC hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jonathan Linton in 1997. Bernard is a redshirt freshman from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas; his brother, Yvenson, is a former starting tailback for Oregon State.

Some fun with numbers: Virginia Tech has won 11 consecutive road games, the longest such streak in the nation. ... West Virginia has won 17 in a row over Rutgers. ... Western Kentucky has won four in a row; that's the Hilltoppers' longest winning streak since 2005. ... Colorado State fell at UNLV, which was the Rams' eighth consecutive Mountain West road loss, and it further intensified the heat on coach Steve Fairchild. ... Colorado has allowed at least 500 yards in four consecutive games. The Buffs have USC and Arizona in their next two games, so the streak could reach six. ... Going into its game with Ole Miss, Auburn had scored just 57 total points in its previous four games. The Tigers put up 41 on the Rebels.

There was one FBS-FCS matchup Saturday, with Army blasting Fordham. That makes FBS teams 86-6 against FCS competition; the losers are Minnesota (to North Dakota State), UNLV (to Southern Utah), New Mexico (to Sam Houston State in overtime), Western Kentucky (to Indiana State), Duke (to Richmond) and Oregon State (to Sacramento State).

The National Football Foundation announced the 16 finalists for the Campbell Trophy, a sort of academic/athletic Heisman. The 16: Georgia P Drew Butler, Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Delta State (Miss.) QB Micah Davis (a 4.0 GPA in chemistry), Northwestern State (La.) LB Yaser Elqutub, South Dakota RB Chris Gainous, Colorado School of Mines QB Clay Garcia, Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish, Kansas State S Tysyn Hartman, USF G Chaz Hine, Purdue LB Joe Holland, Washington State WR Jared Karstetter, Army LB Andrew Rodriguez (a 4.14 GPA in mechanical engineering), Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill, Yale QB Patrick Witt (he transferred from Nebraska) and Dubuque (Iowa) WR Michael Zweifel. The program started in 1959 and awards post-grad scholarships to players - from NAIA to FBS - based on their combined academic, athletic and leadership abilities.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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