It’s another week and another must-win game for the No.8 University of Houston Cougars.
The Cougars season and hopes for the school’s first BCS bid hinges on Friday morning’s showdown at Tulsa in a matchup of two teams undefeated in Conference USA play. The Golden Flashes win and at 8-3 they get pass to next week’s conference championship game a bid to the Liberty Bowl.
Now should the heavily favored and 11-0 Cougars wins, the stakes become much higher because another win punches their ticket to a BCS bowl and a nice parting gift as they get ready to head to the Big East (Hey, I know it’s not official yet but trust the announcement is coming).
But to listen to the Cougars they will have you believe that all that is riding on Friday’s West Division showdown is the division title. It seems almost unreal that a team can so focused so I asked head coach Kevin Sumlin this week how can be for a bunch of 18, 19, 20 and 21 year olds.
“They don’t think like you guys. That’s been the key,” Sumlin smiled as he nodded toward the media assembled in the room Tuesday. “To be honest, I sit over here and talk about that. I hope they don’t tell you those stories, but it’s kind of true. If I could keep them away from y’all, we’d be a lot better. But that’s not the case.”
But then Sumlin turned serious and spoke to the true reason this collection of Cougars seem ready to do what they fell just short of a couple other times under this coaching regime. When you have a sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, whose leadership skills get overshadowed by his assault on the NCAA record books, senior linebacker Sammy Brown and a trio of accomplished senior receivers like Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards and Justin Johnson, teams tend to not get too far ahead of themselves.
Combine that with a staff that has also matured a great deal since taking over for Art Briles and elevating what he started here and you can easily see how this team can so narrowly focused.
“To be honest, they’re more mature than two years ago,” said Sumlin, whose team even handled ESPN’s Gameday crew rolling into town for last Saturday’s game against SMU as if the biggest college football show wasn’t parked right outside of its stadium. “We’ve handled things better administratively, the number of media requests, all the other stuff that’s gone on. We’ve got a bunch of juniors and seniors that went through that (2009) as freshmen and sophomores. I think we’ve done a better job of handling it. It’s hard to handle if you’ve never been through it. We’re all better at it.
“We’ve kind of adopted it, with everything that was going on (last week), and as positive as things were around campus, I think the players did an excellent job of doing what we asked them to do. All I told them was, ‘Ignore the circus, and ride the ride.’ They get that. All the stuff that’s around here, if you want to ride the roller coaster, let’s just get on the roller coaster, don’t worry about all the other stuff that’s outside of it.”
And that is exactly what the Cougars have bought into it even as they head into what is easily the most important game in UH history.
“I treat each week like it’s the biggest game I’ve ever played, no matter who we play or what’s at stake,” Keenum said. “This week’s game is for the C-USA West title and we know it’s the biggest game for the Cougars right now, because it’s the only one we are playing.”
And that won’t even change with all the guys wearing funny colored suit jackets waiting to shake their hands at H.A. Chapman Stadium and invite the most exciting offense in college football to their bowl.
“We really don’t look ahead. We’re just trying to prepare for Tulsa and stop their quarterback,” Brown said, referencing Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne. “He’s a great quarterback.”
Now how is that for focus?