Houston was so close to making history.
All the Cougars had to do was beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game to clinch a spot in their first BCS game.
No. 24 Southern Miss completely dominated No. 6 Houston and Heisman trophy candidate Case Keenum, burying the Cougars 49-28 behind the strength of their aggressive, physical, opportunistic defense. The victory gives the Golden Eagles (11-2) their first win in the C-USA title game.
Now the BCS is thrown into flux, as the Cougars (12-1) are out of the mix after a season full of records. That's a $17 million loss for Conference USA.
Keenum came back for his sixth season to make history, and he did that as the NCAA record holder for passing, touchdowns and total offense. He led the Cougars to a school-record 12 wins, too. But nobody in Houston cares much about the record books right now. Houston needed this win in the worst way, but Larry Fedora outcoached Kevin Sumlin in the biggest game in Houston history.
From the start, the Cougars looked off-kilter because Southern Miss applied heavy pressure and simply dominated the Houston offensive line. Keenum never got comfortable, never got in a good rhythm, and that was a big reason the Cougars could never claw back after going down 14-0 early.
They managed to tie it in the second quarter at 14, but Southern Miss answered right back when Austin Davis threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Sullivan on the next drive. That was as close as the Cougars got. Hard as it might be to believe, Houston never led in this game.
Keenum, who came into this season with just three interceptions, threw two in this game. One was in the end zone to kill a drive. The other was returned for a touchdown, giving Southern Miss an FBS-record eight interceptions returned for a score this season.
What is most impressive about this Southern Miss D is this: First-year coordinator Dan Disch installed a completely new 4-2-5 scheme when he arrived on campus. Generally it takes about a year for a team to really take to a new style of play. But not this unit. Earlier this week, Fedora said his players bought into the scheme immediately.
"We knew in making that change that there wouldn't be time for a learning curve so we told the kids, 'There is not time for a learning curve, you’re going to have to spend whatever free time you have learning this system as quickly as possible.' They all bought in. They were excited about it and they learned it very quickly. You have to give credit to Dan Disch and the defensive staff for making things simple."
Cordarro Law, who has been outstanding all year, was a particular source of trouble for Houston. He was simply unblockable. The No. 1 offense in the nation was held to season lows in points and total offense (428) -- 185 yards below its season average. Keenum was 41-of-67 for 373 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, as his Heisman hopes took a serious hit.
The Cougars had made improvements on defense, but Southern Miss racked up 207 yards on the ground. The Golden Eagles' Davis, who has been so solid for this team, threw four touchdown passes.
With the loss, the door now opens for TCU to potentially join the BCS party for a third straight season. No. 18 TCU has to move into the top 16 in the final BCS standings and finish ranked ahead of the Big East champion, and the Horned Frogs will get an automatic berth. Non-AQ teams are eligible for an automatic berth if they win their conference. Boise State will be ranked higher if it closes its season with a win over New Mexico, but it is disqualified from getting an AQ spot because it lost the Mountain West title to TCU.
For Houston, the what-if game is one that will now be played.