Case Keenum's cellphone finally rang on a Friday last January. Keenum, Houston's prolific quarterback, had shredded his right ACL against UCLA four months earlier, taking the Cougars from popular sleeper (Houston went 10--4 in '09) to dormant nonfactor (final '10 record: 5--7). Coach Kevin Sumlin was on the line with the news everyone had been waiting for: The NCAA had granted Keenum, already a fifth-year senior who was not considered to be an early-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, a rare medical exception to play a sixth. (The university successfully argued that Keenum's 2006 redshirt season was due to an injury and beyond his control.) "There was a lot of pent-up anxiety," Keenum recalls of his family's response, "and we all just let it out."
Five weeks into 2011, the family has even more to whoop about. A recovered Keenum—who led the country in total offense in '08 and '09—threw for 471 yards last Thursday in a 49--42 win over UTEP. Once again he is a virtual lock to break the FBS career records for passing yards and touchdowns by year's end. (He's only 1,481 yards and 13 TDs away from those marks.) But best of all, the Heisman hopeful's presence has put an even wilder achievement on the table: the first BCS bowl for high-octane Houston (5--0).
Over the last five years Boise State and TCU have drilled BCS busting down to a straightforward science: Docket a few big-conference opponents and win out. This year, while Houston won't have high-major scalps—its best win will be a 38--34 victory over UCLA—the Cougars will have a viable argument thanks to a C-USA schedule free of Central Florida and Southern Miss, which puts 13--0 in play. The big question? It should be familiar to people who can recall Houston's run-and-shoot days of the late 1980s: Whether an unstoppable offense (No. 1 in yards at 610.0 per game) can get any help from a defense that surrendered 133 points to the four opponents not named Georgia State. "We try to be honest with ourselves," Sumlin admits. "For us to be the program that we want to be, we've got to be better defensively."
If that happens, help will still be needed. No. 5 Boise State, the leading contender for Houston's theoretical BCS bid, needs to stumble at least once and maybe twice. Two Boise losses plus a Cougars top 12 finish in the final BCS standings (or at least a ranking better than the Big East champ's as long as Houston is in the top 16) would be enough to make history. And get the Keenums hooting again.
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RAY CARLIN/ICON SMI (KEENUM)
HEISMAN CASE? In the tradition of Andre Ware and David Klingler, Keenum is putting up soon-to-be-record-breaking numbers.