Coogs Versus Southern Miss for All the Marbles
The distractions are there for the 12-0 Houston Cougars, the number six team in the BCS standings. Distractions like which BCS bowl game they're playing. Distractions like which team they're playing in that BCS bowl -- current projections being Michigan in the Sugar.
One more win and the Coogs are BCS-bound.
Then there are the distractions about head coach Kevin Sumlin's future, distractions furthered by the weekend bloodletting that left open jobs at such schools as Arizona State, UCLA,
Washington State (never mind, Mike Leach got there first) and Illinois (oh, and here's a very special thanks to Texas A&M for deciding to ruin everyone's weekend yesterday). And there are the continued distractions about the school's future conference affiliation.
But if the Cougars don't defeat the Southern Miss Golden Eagles (10-2, 6-2 in conference), ranked 24th in the BCS, then none of those distractions will matter. The Cougars won't be talking about a Sugar Bowl against Michigan. They'll be talking about a Ticket City Bowl against a mediocrity like Northwestern or Iowa State. They won't be talking about BCS rankings, they'll be talking about a season that suddenly seems like a failure.
The Cougars have been in this situation before under Sumlin. Kind of. Just two seasons ago the school finished 10-4. But they lost in the C-USA title game and had to settle for the Armed Forces Bowl after storming the rankings earlier in the season on the basis of upsets of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. Then came losses to UTEP, and UCF, and East Carolina, and Air Force.
Sumlin was mentioned in lots of coaching-vacancy talk that season, too. But he chose to stay in Houston, getting a contract extension as a reward for the team's best season since the Jack Pardee/John Jenkins era.
"You talk about coaches two ways in college football," Sumlin said on Tuesday. "A bunch of them, they talked about letting them go on Monday and Sunday. The other guys, they talk about moving on to other jobs. I don't want to be in that first conversation. As long as you keep talking about me moving on, hopefully, I'm doing a pretty good job at that point."
The Coogs are a heavily senior-laden team, a team full of players who went through these distractions two years ago and who knows how to deal with these matters. It's a team that knows that all that matters is what happens on the field Saturday against a good but puzzling Southern Miss team that could, just as easily as the Cougars, be 12-0 on the season but for puzzling conference road losses at Marshall and UAB.
"This is a well-coached football team," Sumlin said of Southern Miss. "If you are going to compare them to anybody, they are similar to us. We both have veteran quarterbacks who have played a lot of quality football games and have a lot of quality wins. They lead the league in rush defense and we lead the league in pass defense. They are second in the league in scoring defense and we are third in the league in scoring defense. You can go on and on comparing our statistics. They are a top 25 team with a veteran quarterback. When you get to championship play, quarterback play becomes a big factor. They have a quality quarterback in Austin Davis. He can throw the ball and forces you to cover the whole field. There is no doubt that they will be able to move the ball."