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December 2, 2011Backed by the nation's most potent offense and an improved defense, Houston is in position to make history.
Standing in its way is a Southern Mississippi team that is enjoying one of its best seasons ever.
The seventh-ranked Cougars look to remain undefeated while trying for a fourth straight home win over the No. 24 Golden Eagles on Saturday in the Conference USA championship game.
One year removed from a 5-7 season marred by an early season-ending knee injury to star quarterback Case Keenum, Houston (12-0, 8-0) joins top-ranked LSU as the only undefeated teams in the country. Making its third C-USA title game appearance, the Cougars have a chance to earn their first-ever BCS bid with a win Saturday and become the first team from the league to play in the Bowl Championship Series.
"Fifteen weeks ago, we set out for one goal and that goal has not changed all year," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I think a lot of people have tried to talk our team into all these other scenarios and stuff that's happening out there. The ultimate goal for us from day one was to win the conference championship."
That's very much in reach for Houston, which set a school record for single-season victories with a 48-16 win at Tulsa last Friday.
"That's a pretty good position to be in," said Keenum, who threw for 457 yards and five touchdowns versus Tulsa. "I couldn't ask for anything else."
Looking for their first C-USA title since beating Southern Mississippi 34-20 in the 2006 conference championship game, the Cougars lead the nation in total offense (613.3 yards per game), scoring (52.7 points per game) and passing yards (449.7 per game).
Keenum, the NCAA career leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense, has completed 73.2 percent of his passes this season for 4,726 yards, with 43 TDs and just three interceptions. He was 44 of 54 for 559 yards with five TDs and an interception in his only previous game against the Golden Eagles, a 50-43 home win in 2009.
Patrick Edwards, second in the nation with 1,496 receiving yards, caught eight passes for 181 yards and four TDs for the Cougars last week. The senior had seven receptions for 125 yards and two scores in last season's 59-41 loss at Southern Miss.
"There's no secret to what they do," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "It's not like they are doing something different week in and week out. They do what they do."
While Houston's offense usually draws the headlines, its defense has been a big reason the program has made such huge strides in 2011.
The Cougars have gone from 96th in scoring defense in 2010 (32.2 points per game) to 30th in 2011 (20.9 ppg) - the third-best improvement in the country. They have allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their last four games and given up conversions on only 37.23 percent of third downs.
"I wouldn't say it's a remarkable turnaround," defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "I just think you keep on laying bricks. The more bricks you lay, you build a foundation, and then you build a house. We just kept laying bricks.
"We're not where we want to be, we're not the defense we definitely want to be. But we're a work in progress, and that's good."
Southern Miss (10-2, 6-2) has looked good while posting its first 10-win season since 1988, en route to capturing the C-USA Eastern Division. Winners in nine of 10 overall, the Golden Eagles are making their first title game appearance since 2006. They have not won the league crown since 2003, and know recording another is going to be an extremely tough task.
"We wouldn't rather be anywhere else," defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "But it's a heckuva challenge. They can humble you quick and we're well aware of that."
Southern Miss's defense should feel pretty good about itself after giving up 181 total yards in a 44-7 win over Memphis last Saturday. Though the Tigers are not near the offensive juggernaut that Houston is, the Golden Eagles held them to just 7 yards rushing and scored three defensive touchdowns, including a 100-yard interception return by defensive back Kendrick Presley.
Offensively, Southern Miss has its own talented quarterback in Austin Davis, who has thrown for 3,052 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The senior was 24 of 31 for 293 yards with two TDs and no picks versus Houston last season.
The Golden Eagles' three-game skid at Houston dates to a 31-10 victory there in 2003.