When preseason favorite Houston lost Case Keenum for the season with a knee injury, the Conference USA race opened right up.
One team that could be the beneficiary is SMU, which stands alone atop the Western Division headed into a big game with the Cougars on Saturday.
SMU (4-3, 3-0) and Houston (3-3, 2-1) finished last season tied atop the West Division, but the Cougars went on to the conference title game because they won the head-to-head meeting. This time around, the Mustangs are seven-point favorites and have emerged as the favorite to come out of the West.
Coach June Jones has tried to temper those expectations because his team is so young, but admits a Keenum-less Houston has “evened out” the race for the league title. He also said his team has placed an emphasis on winning Conference USA this season, so he wants his players thinking that way.
“We’ve been focusing on that and now it’s time to prove that you belong in that thought process,” Jones said. “I think our kids are understanding that and are learning how to win.”
When you have such an inexperienced team, it takes time to build a winning mentality. SMU may have had the best turnaround in college football last season, but it was the program’s first taste of success since the early 1980s.
Some of the “learn how to win” mentality that Jones is trying to instill showed up in a tough 28-21 loss to Navy last weekend. SMU jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead, but Navy came right back in the second half. The Mustangs had a chance to win the game late. With the score tied at 21, Kyle Padron threw an interception with 1:50 to go that set up the game-winning score for the Midshipmen.
It was a pass that had worked several times during the game. But on the interception, Padron waited a tick too long to get rid of the ball.
“I took a real shuffle step that caused me to be a second late,” Padron said. “Next time, I’m going to get it right.”
Padron is having a good season, with a league-leading 19 touchdown passes, 1,818 yards and just six interceptions. Jones likes to remind people Padron does not have much starting experience because he played so little in high school and only became the starter midway through last season.
What has also helped has been the emergence of Zach Line, a converted linebacker who leads the league in rushing with 635 yards this season.
Line did play running back in high school, and since Jones felt he had depth at linebacker, he moved Line to running back full time. With leading rusher Shawnbrey McNeal gone, Line has stepped up to help take some of the burden off Padron.
For his part, Padron says he feels more comfortable running the Run and Shoot offense that Jones has come to perfect. As for the ratcheted-up expectations, Padron welcomes them.
“Last year when we lost, it was, ‘Aww, we lost another one,’” Padron said. “Now on campus is like, ‘What happened? How did you lose? They’re expecting us to win. It’s good to have that back on campus.”
Houston has lost two in a row, including a tough 34-31 setback to Rice. They are 1-2 without Keenum. If you count the UCLA game, when he got hurt, Houston is 1-3. The Cougars have had to play true freshmen Terrance Broadway and David Piland because Cotton Turner broke his collarbone in the UCLA game, too.
Bryce Beall is right up there with Line when it comes to rushing in the conference, but Houston seems to be a team that is in a fight for survival. Five of its final six games are against teams with winning records.
Despite the recent struggles, no way is SMU going to take Houston lightly. Not when the Mustangs know they are in now in the driver’s seat in the West.
“We control our own destiny,” Padron said. “We just have to go out every week and execute.”