Keenum's return brightens Houston outlook

As many of you have seen, I did not have Houston in my way too early look at the Top 10 non-AQ teams for 2011. The reason is simple -- I was not banking on Case Keenum getting his sixth year of eligibility, mainly because most of us were unaware that he had a shoulder injury that forced him to redshirt his freshman season.

Now that Keenum is set to return for 2011, several readers left questions in my mailbag asking whether or not that would alter my Top 10. The answer has to be yes at this point.

Getting Keenum back is obviously going to do wonders for Houston and the Cougars. Does that mean they are going to automatically be a Top 25 team? No. But I do think they will be among the top 10 non-AQs. Keenum is closing in on the NCAA career passing yards mark, and he just makes everyone around him better. There is a reason Houston struggled to a 5-7 record and missed a bowl after he tore his ACL in Week 3.

He will have plenty of help returning around him -- top receivers Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier return, along with a stacked backfield featuring Bryce Beall, Chris Wilson and Michael Hayes. Running back Charles Sims, the C-USA Freshman of the Year in 2009, is not eligible to participate in the spring but could return in the fall. There are some holes to fill on the offensive line, most notably three-year starter Jordan Shoemaker.

What we have to watch is how Keenum looks following ACL surgery. Not all quarterbacks are able to bounce back and return to their old selves a year later. We have to see whether or not he is jumpy in the pocket, worried about taking a hit to his knee, and how the strength of his legs affects his arm. Keenum already has said he is not going to be making any tackles after sustaining the knee injury and a concussion that way.

We also have to watch the defense. This is a unit that remained near the bottom of the college football rankings in its first season under coordinator Brian Stewart and the new 3-4 alignment. The Cougars were No. 103 in total defense, giving up 432.8 yards a game, just a slight improvement over 2009, when they gave up 451 yards a game. Some of the struggles could be attributed to the fact that the offense was not the same without Keenum, but coach Kevin Sumlin is going to want to see some big-time improvements with the players going into their second season in the new system. There is plenty of talent returning -- leading tackler Marcus McGraw, Phillip Steward and Sammy Brown among them.

The battle between Houston, Tulsa and SMU in C-USA West is going to be a fierce one. Tulsa may have the upper hand at this point, but the coaching change is going to have a big impact on how the Golden Hurricane do. SMU needs to see Kyle Padron take that next step and stop making silly mistakes. The bottom line is that Houston is set to be a force again in C-USA and no doubt a team to watch with Keenum back in charge.

Provided he stays healthy.