Inconsistent Houston still atop C-USA West

We have seen our fair share of schizophrenic teams this college football season. They look oh, so good one week, and oh, so bad the next. Texas comes to mind as the poster child after its loss to Iowa State, following a big win over Nebraska.

There is a non-AQ team that comes to mind as well. Houston has been Jekyll and Hyde, too, but for different reasons. While Texas went into the season without its leader in Colt McCoy, Houston lost theirs in the third game of the season.

Would Houston fall into the tank without Case Keenum and backup Cotton Turner? Or would the Cougars be able to persevere with a true freshman at quarterback and still win Conference USA?

Four games post-Keenum, it is safe to say we still have no idea.

Houston (4-3, 3-1) looked terrific in a 45-20 win over SMU (4-4, 3-1) this past weekend, moving into first place in the West Division of Conference USA. If the two teams win out, Houston gets to the Conference USA championship game.

“If” is the operative word of course. Look at what happened the week before the SMU game: Houston lost to Rice 34-31 after falling behind 27-7 early in the game. The same Rice team lost to UCF 41-14 on Saturday.

You can understand why Houston has been so inconsistent. The Cougars are trying to develop a freshman at quarterback in David Piland, one who was supposed to redshirt this season. They have tried to become more of a running team to take the pressure off him, and that has worked at times for them.

The defense was a work in progress even before Keenum got hurt, and that unit has struggled at times as well.

Plus, you cannot underestimate what it means to lose your on-field leader. Keenum brought the eye-popping stats, too, but he brought a veteran’s poise to all his teammates.

“When you come into a season and have leaders, there's a pecking order of how things go in any organization,” coach Kevin Sumlin said leading up to the SMU game. “It takes some time for a guy to step outside of his comfort zone and say, ‘You know what, I'll lead now.’ That seems like an easy thing to do, but personality-wise and player-wise, sometimes that just doesn't happen overnight.

“As coaches, we have to assume that role until we can find someone or a number of guys that say, ‘I'll lead from here on out.’ It’s a whole lot easier to do in [the] offseason than it is while you’re preparing for a game, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Sumlin says Piland has continued to improve, but reiterated that it is hard to get a guy prepared midway through a season. Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes have stepped up in the run game. The two combined for 171 yards rushing and four touchdowns against SMU, but Sumlin knows they need the type of help they got against the Mustangs. The defense had three takeaways, Tyron Carrier had a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Piland led four scoring drives of 70-plus yards for his first career win.

Afterward, Sumlin told reporters, “I’m proud of our guys going on the road, handling this week of basically everybody writing us off.”

Beall said, “We played like the old Houston Cougars.”

Will the old Houston Cougars show up this week at Memphis? The Tigers are the final team with a losing record left on Houston's schedule. Following that, Houston has back-to-back home games against UCF (5-2) and Tulsa (4-3), then closes with back-to-back road games against Southern Miss (5-2) and Texas Tech (4-3).

Still, Houston is in position to win the conference. Tulsa is one game behind Houston and SMU at 2-2, and the Golden Hurricane also have been inconsistent this season. UTEP is now 2-3 in conference play and two games behind Houston. The Cougars already beat them this season. They also beat Tulane, which is 1-2 in conference. Rice is 1-3.

The opportunity is there. We just have no idea which Houston team will show up week to week.