Houston uses last year's finish as motivation

Houston’s 2009 season spanned the gamut.

The Cougars felt the high of beating Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, achieving the highest BCS standing in program history, and the lows of losing back-to-back games to East Carolina and Air Force, finishing the year unranked.

It was the type of roller-coaster ride coach Kevin Sumlin hoped his team was mature enough to avoid, but now he’s hoping that ebb and flow will help his team in 2010.

“I said last year that we had enough talent to win every game, but it was going to be how we matured and how we handled it that was going to dictate whether or not that was the case,” Sumlin said. “So, I think with the majority of our team coming back, particularly offensively, it’s a learning experience. And you have to learn from your successes and failures to get better and hopefully we’ve done that.”

For the first half of the season, Houston was on top of the world. Quarterback Case Keenum led dramatic comebacks against two automatic qualifying foes and was being talked about as a possible Heisman contender. But a loss to UTEP to start Conference USA play knocked the Cougars out of the national rankings totally and cast doubt on whether they were really good or just a fluke.

“It was a reality check,” receiver Tyron Carrier said in an earlier interview with ESPN.com. “No matter who we play, we’re going to get their best game. We’ve got the 'X' on our chest and we’ve got to live up to that quality. We’ve got to come to play every game.”

Houston lost just one more time and won Conference USA’s West Division. But in the C-USA title game against East Carolina, things fell apart. Keenum threw for 527 yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions, including one in the end zone on Houston’s final offensive play of the game.

The loss sent the Cougars back to the Armed Forces Bowl to face Air Force, the same opponent they played in the same bowl game a year ago. It was an anticlimactic ending to a season that had started off so promising. And the Cougars played like an uninspired bunch. Air Force beat Houston 47-20 and forced Keenum into a record six interceptions. He threw a season-low 222 yards and one touchdown.

While the game wasn’t the way Houston saw its season concluding, it did serve as motivation this offseason to never go through something like that again.

"I see a team that did not reach all their goals and, quite frankly, got embarrassed in the last football game,” Sumlin said. “I think that we won enough to experience what that’s like and to lose the games that we lost, it still leaves a very sour taste in our players' mouths. I think because of those experiences and my meetings with them, I think that they’re motivated by that.”

With almost all of last year’s squad coming back and several key additions, especially on defense, Houston has a renewed energy and purpose. The 2010 schedule is as tough as 2009’s, with games at UCLA and Texas Tech and at home against Mississippi State. However, Houston now knows what it takes to reach the top of the mountain and stay there.

The Cougars won’t be ranked when the season starts and it will take some key wins to get voters back on their side, but Sumlin believes his team is better equipped to handle the pressure and see the season through.

“I see a team right now that has experience finally, and we’re trying to develop some depth,” Sumlin said. “The fact is that guys are hungry right now and realize what it takes to win now because they’ve experienced that. They also have some motivation and I think it’s probably helping us mentally to prepare for what’s going to happen this fall.”