You probably could have predicted the stakes in the regular-season final between Tulsa and Houston before the season started.
Tulsa finished 2010 ranked in the Top 25, and returned veteran quarterback G.J. Kinne along with a host of starters. Houston got a sixth year of eligibility for Case Keenum, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history. Most everybody expected they would be battling it out for the top spot in the West Division of Conference USA.
That is exactly how everything has played out. No. 8 Houston and Tulsa head into their critical game Friday with undefeated marks in league play. The winner hosts the C-USA title game Dec. 3 against the champion from the East.
"We said probably as early as last spring that the way the schedule played out, we should be playing Houston for the division title," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "We’ve been talking about that for a long time. From that standpoint, they had it planted in their brain that we’re not going to be done with this until the Friday after Thanksgiving."
This is not only a critical game for conference title hopes, but for BCS hopes as well. If Houston (11-0, 7-0) loses, the Cougars will not get an automatic spot into the BCS. Tulsa has played three teams ranked in the Top 10 already this season (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State), and have a long history with Houston, so they know exactly what they are in for Friday.
Much has been made of Houston this season because the Cougars are putting together such a fantastic year. But what Tulsa has done deserves praise as well. The Golden Hurricane went into the season with a new head coach in Blankenship, after Todd Graham left for Pitt. They also had to deal with the loss of all-purpose superstar Damaris Johnson, arrested just before the start of the season on embezzlement charges.
Put that together with the back-breaking nonconference schedule, and Tulsa began the year 1-3. But this is a team that did not break. Tulsa (8-3, 7-0) has won its conference games this season by an average of 25.7 points, has the No. 1 rushing offense in the league and the No. 2 total offense.
You can probably guess which team has the No. 1 offense. Keenum has been outstanding in his return from a torn ACL, and is a huge reason why the Cougars are in this position. Houston has posted over 500 yards of total offense in eight straight games, and is averaging 53.1 points. The NCAA record for average points scored per game is 56, set by Army in 1944.
Consider this stat: Houston has scored 302 points the last five weeks. That's more than 64 teams have scored all season. Keenum leads the nation with 4,269 yards passing and has gotten more Heisman buzz as the year has gone on. If the Cougars win out, there is a very good chance he will get an invite to the Heisman ceremony in New York.
But before any of that, the Cougars must focus in on their big game Friday, a game that could get them a school-record 12th victory.
"Every week there seems to be something out there that hasn't been done that our guys look at and say, 'Let's do that,'" Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I think it's important for our team. ... We talk about making history and quite frankly there's things that we're trying to accomplish that 20 years from now, when you bring your kid in here you can say, 'This is what your dad did.'"