What in the hell happened in Houston today? What does it feel like to watch your dreams be killed on your home field? What does it feel like to give 17 points in the spread, yet knowing those 17 points would still have left you in a deficit to your opponent? An era ended today at Robertson Stadium, the longtime quarterback on his way out the door and the coach almost certainly soon to follow once they’ve endured the sting of playing down into whatever bowl (Armed Forces? TicketCity?) they end up playing. Maybe the school itself won’t be long for Conference USA either. But whether they stay or look “Big” East-ward, the Cougars are now just another 12-1 non-champion of its conference that has the worst resume of any of the contenders and pretenders.
The BCS was right there for the snatching. All the Cougars had to do was conquer a Southern Miss team that had already thrown away its own Buster dreams and they were guaranteed a trip to the Sugar or Orange Bowl. The Golden Eagles were forced to watch those dreams decay on a Thursday night spent in the fitting confines of Legion Field in Birmingham, as they were inexplicably upset by a UAB team that would end the year 3-9. Coupled with a loss to Marshall, it meant that not even a win would send Southern Miss to the BCS. But pride was still on the line, the chance to show that they were better than a couple of bad losses on the road.
Not even the NCAA’s all-time leader in basically every meaningful offensive category for a quarterback was able to get it done on his home field, in his final home game of a six-year odyssey, could get the job done against a defense that came into the game ranked 12th in the nation in opposing quarterback efficiency. Case Keenum looked lethargic throughout the game, throwing away his chance at college football immortality with his most inefficient performance of the season just when his team needed him most. A two-touchdown, two-interception performance yielding just 5.6 yards per attempt was a damning indictment that might have cost the long-graduated senior his shot at a trip to New York City for the Heisman presentation next week. And instead of writing a chapter in Conference USA history, he let Austin Davis do the hollering instead on a lovely Texas day.
But even as they celebrate all the way home from Houston to Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles will soon be left with the realization that they are one conference trophy richer and over ten million dollars poorer for the victory. Conference USA hadn’t seen one of its teams harbor such a golden opportunity to Bust the BCS since the fateful 2004 season when Louisville was ranked 10th and in position to qualify — but behind Mountain West champion Utah, who would beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, and Boise State, who would also be shut out of the BCS and would eventually be matched against the Cardinals in their last game before becoming part of the establishment in the Big East.
Once again the conference will be left to wonder what might have been, to wonder what that windfall of cash might have done for every one of its twelve athletic departments. Today eleven of the twelve conference members were fans of the Cougars, and today the Cougars came up short. They are left to lick their wounds from the Eagles’ talons, reeling at the worst possible time and left unable to make any case that would persuade a system rigged against its ilk to have mercy.
It was an ignominious end of an era in Houston, and perhaps a resplendent end to one at Southern Miss if the early rumors about Larry Fedora’s rising stock among larger-scale potential BCS-conference employers are soon to become true. But in the end the biggest loser is Marshall and UAB, who beat Southern Miss this year but were left to watch as they cost their own teams millions of dollars. It was Tulsa and UCF, SMU and East Carolina, all the teams that fell by the wayside as the season progressed in the hunt for the only goal left for any non-AQ team looking for a taste of the elite life — perfection.
Maybe we’ll still see the first BCS Buster in the 13-year history of this particular experiment in bowl matchup manipulation to get into one of the four undercards with a blemished record. But it won’t be Houston. Thanks to their loss they now might be forced to watch their old Southwest Conference rival take the spoils — even as they are on their way out the Mountain West door for the Big XII next season. If the Horned Frogs get in, it is with one foot on either side of the AQ/non-AQ divide.
Now everything is in the hands of the system. Here’s guessing they rig it to cherry-pick from those with favored member status. When a team could have prevented the collusion of this good-ole-boy network that is the backslapping BCS — and thrown a monkey wrench into the system as one of just two perfect teams heading into bowl season to boot — none of the men on Houston’s sideline, coaches and players alike, had an answer when the clock struck midnight…