High-powered Houston is one win away from a BCS bid and coach Kevin Sumlin is gushing about his ... defense?
The Cougars (12-0) play host to Southern Miss (10-2) in the Conference USA title game Saturday, and an unbeaten Houston team would be guaranteed a BCS bid.
Olin Buchanan: Houston 41, Southern Miss 34
David Fox: Houston 42, Southern Miss 35
Mike Huguenin: Houston 38, Southern Miss 27
Steve Megargee: Houston 38, Southern Miss 24
Houston's offense has been all the rage, as the Cougars lead the nation in total offense, scoring offense and pass offense; indeed, they are on their way to setting NCAA single-season records in each of those categories.
But Sumlin, a former linebacker at Purdue, is just as proud of his defense. While the Cougars are 60th in total defense, they're 30th in a far more important category - scoring defense.
"We had some goals going into this year of what we had to do defensively to be successful," Sumlin said in his weekly news conference. "Some of those factors to improve were third-down defense and scoring defense and getting better at quarterback-run defense. We paid attention to that and you can see a big difference. ...
"What we do offensively, total defense is never going to be the mark. It is going to be third-down defense and points allowed."
Last season, Houston allowed 32.2 points per game; this season, that number is 20.9. Last season, foes converted 49.4 percent of their third-down opportunities, which meant Houston ranked a wretched 117th nationally; this season, it's 37.2 percent, which is 41st nationally.
Sumlin points to "more depth in the front and secondary" as the biggest reasons for the improvement. "We didn't have any depth before," he said. "We are able to rotate our defensive lineman more and able to keep them fresh."
That defense gets its biggest test Saturday. Southern Miss averages 469.8 yards and 36.9 points per game, good for second in the league in both categories.
"There is no doubt that they will be able to move the ball," Sumlin said. "It will be another great challenge for our defense. There will be some carryover from Tulsa [last week]. ... Perimeter and speed-wise, they are a step above Tulsa."
In addition to playing against the best offense it will have seen this season, Houston also will going against the strongest defense it has seen. Southern Miss is 26th in total defense and 25th in scoring defense; the Golden Eagles have allowed more than 400 yards just three times and have allowed a league-low 12 TD passes. Houston QB Case Keenum has thrown 43 TD passes and just three picks, with only one of those interceptions coming in the past nine games.
"There's no secret to what they do," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said of Houston's offense. "It's not like they are doing something different week in and week out. They do what they do. They are going to run the routes the way they run them. They are going to go up-tempo. They are going to run the ball when you give them numbers, and they will try to take advantage of you.
"They've got guys with some speed and you have to be great tacklers. You can't give them big plays when you should be making a tackle."
This is Houston's third appearance in the C-USA championship game and Southern Miss' second. Houston is 1-1, with the victory coming over the Golden Eagles in 2006. The Cougars were upset by East Carolina in the 2009 game.
This is the first time that both participants have been included in the BCS standings. Houston is sixth this week, while Southern Miss is 24th.
"I think it's a great statement for the league and where this league is," Fedora said. "This league has grown and gained more and more respect each year."
It likely would garner even more respect if Houston can become the first league team to appear in a BCS game.