Houston had last Saturday off after easily dispatching Tulane on a Thursday night.
Coach Kevin Sumlin was at home watching the end of the wild Texas A&M-Kansas State game when his phone started ringing. Text messages started flying in, too. He had one good guess about what was happening.
TCU had beaten Boise State 36-35, opening the way for the Cougars to get an automatic bid into the BCS.
"Nobody really calls me a lot on Saturday night, so I figured that's what happened," Sumlin said at his news conference this week.
Boise State and Houston went into last week undefeated, but it was the Broncos with the Top 5 ranking in the BCS standings. Only one team from outside the automatic qualifying conferences is guaranteed an automatic spot into the BCS, should it finish in the Top 12 of the final standings. As long as Boise State was ranked ahead of the Cougars, the Broncos would take that spot. Houston would be left hoping for an at-large berth.
How things change with one loss. If the No. 11 Cougars (10-0) win out, they clinch the first BCS berth in school and Conference USA history. College GameDay comes to town Saturday for a crucial West Division game against SMU (6-4), and now everybody will be paying attention.
"I think it's a place where all teams want to be in," said quarterback Case Keenum, now a candidate in the Heisman Trophy race. "As far as our mind-set, it doesn't change it a whole lot. We can treat it like a playoff like we have every week, so it doesn't matter what's happened. All that matters is this week."
Houston closes the year with its toughest stretch of the season. The Cougars have not exactly played the most difficult competition. Only three of their wins have come against teams that are .500 or better (UCLA, Louisiana Tech, UTEP). But that all changes with games against SMU, then at Tulsa next week. If the Cougars beat the Golden Hurricane, they would most likely play No. 20 Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. Those three teams are a combined 22-8.
Keenum, of course, has taken all the headlines with his NCAA record-setting performance this season. He has directed the No. 1 offense in the nation, averaging 628.8 yards a game. That is on pace to break the NCAA FBS record for total offense, set by David Klingler and Houston in 1989 (625 ypg).
It is Keenum who has really piloted this team, a man who overcame the low point of a torn ACL last season to come back better than ever. Keenum leads FBS this season with 41 completions of 25 yards or longer, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Incredibly, he has completed at least one such pass in 50 of his 53 career games, including all 10 this season.
He has got a great target in Patrick Edwards, who has 1,277 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. But everybody expected fireworks from Houston this season. What has really allowed the Cougars to get to the position they are in today has been improvement on defense.
Consider: in 2009, Houston ranked No. 95 in the nation in scoring defense (30.07 ppg) and No. 111 in total defense (451.29). This season, Houston ranks No. 41 in scoring defense (22.8 ppg) and No. 67 in total defense (393.2 ypg).
One of the knocks against Houston going into the season was its inability to put a complete season together. This is a team that always lost a game it was favored to win. Go back to 2009 when the Cougars dropped games to UTEP and UCF, and also lost to East Carolina in the conference title game. Houston was the favorite in all three of those games.
"Two years ago, we were a very inconsistent football team," Sumlin said. "We were up and down in a lot of different ways -- not just on Saturday, but it started with practice and being able to handle media, being able to divide our time and know what's really important and what's not and stay focused. There's a lot of things that go into that. The experiences of two years ago have helped this football team."