After making it through the entire regular season undefeated, the Cougars suffered a catastrophic 28-49 loss at home to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game. The Cougars were unfocused, uninspired, and completely befuddled by a superior Golden Eagle gameplan. The offense was out of sync and unable to move the ball against USM. Case Keenum was off-target much of the time and threw two interceptions, and when he did find his receivers they oftentimes couldn't catch the ball. The rushing game, meanwhile, could only manage 55 total yards of offense all afternoon. The UH defense was similarly exposed, giving up touchdown passes of 69 and 61 yards and allowing 207 yards to USM's rushing attack. Special teams performed poorly as well, allowing a punt to be blocked and returned for an easy Golden Eagle touchdown.
It was the Cougars' worst performance of the year and it came at the worst possible time. The nationally-televised loss cost the Coogs their shot at a BCS Bowl (and all the money and prestige it would entail), any chance Case Keenum had of even being invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony evaporated, and the team plummeted in the AP rankings from #7 to #20. If the Coogs lose to Penn State in the Ticketcity Bowl in Dallas on January 2nd, they will likely become the first team in college football history to win twelve games and not even end the season ranked in the top 25. Richard Justice, in one of his last columns as a Houston Chronicle sportswriter, explains just how costly the loss was for the UH football program:
Rather than the Sugar Bowl's estimated $17 million payoff, the Coogs likely will be getting around $1 million. Because bowl money is shared with 11 other Conference USA members, UH's net loss probably is $2.5 million.
Also lost were prestige and a chance to prove once and for all that UH belonged on the national stage. Unfortunately, UH proved all the people who had doubts correct.
The 12-1 Coogs will forever be seen as a paper tiger that rode a weak schedule up the ladder, and when confronted with a real test were run off the field.
"It was a very, very tough locker room, obviously, for a lot of guys who've accomplished a lot this year," UH head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
UH fans will forever wonder if Sumlin was fully engaged with his team during a week when his name was connected with the job openings at Texas A&M and Arizona State.
There's absolutely no doubt that the rumors flying about Kevin Sumlin's possible move to Texas A&M the week of the game served as a distraction to the team, and, quite frankly, after blowing the most important game of his career to date, many UH fans (myself included) were ready to see him go. A week and a half after the conference championship loss, Sumlin finally made it official: he was headed to College Station to become the next head coach of the Texas A&M Aggies.
With Sumlin's departure, assistant head coach Tony Levine was elevated to the head coaching position on an interim basis. A few days ago, the "interim" was removed from his job title as Athletics Director Mack Rhoades officially introduced him as the program's next head coach. The 39-year-old Levine had been an assistant at UH since the 2008 season; he played wide receiver at the University of Minnesota and his experience as an assistant includes stints at the high school, college and professional levels. While the players and some UH faithful reacted positively to the hire, other UH fans who were hoping for a "name" coach were less enthused. Of course, only time will tell if Levine will be successful here, but I imagine he can quickly make a lot of new friends if he is able to lead the Coogs to victory in the Ticketcity.com bowl next week.
As head coach, Levine will have one advantage that no previous UH coach has had: membership in an automatically-qualifying BCS conference. The falling dominoes of conference realignment that have occurred over the past several months - Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, TCU and West Virginia to the Big XII, Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC - meant that a spot had finally opened for Houston in one of the nation's six AQ conferences. Earlier this month, the Big East announced that Houston, along with Central Florida, SMU, Boise State and San Diego State, will be joining that conference in time for the 2013 season.
Critics point out that this move by the Big East is a desperate attempt to remain viable, that the geographic spread of the conference is unwieldy, and that there's no guarantee that the Big East will be able to retain its BCS berth long-term, especially since the current BCS arrangement expires after the 2013 season. And that's all true. But it's also true that the new Big East is still, top-to-bottom, a stronger conference than C-USA. The fact that the Big East remains a power basketball conference doesn't hurt, either. In the end, this move was a no-brainer for the University of Houston.
There's nothing for the Cougar football program to do now except lick its wounds and move on. The Ticketcity.com bowl provides a chance for redemption, and although 2012 will be something of a rebuilding year for a team losing so many talented seniors, it will give Levine time to grow into his role as coach and get the team ready for Big East play in 2013.
But oh, what could have been...