It's easy to point to Case Keenum's season-ending ACL tear on Sept. 18 at UCLA as the reason Houston had a losing season and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
But the fact is a fourth-string true freshman quarterback in David Piland stepped in and, at least from a statistical standpoint, did more than enough for the Cougars to have reached the six-win, bowl-eligible plateau.
This was a team that was 5-3 before its defense called it a season and the Cougars lost four-straight to close out the year.
The Cougars had deficiencies not only on defense, but also in the offensive line, in consistency at running back, in coaching and, most of all, in leadership.
It is ignoring the obvious, true problems of the team if the program chalks up 2010 to a hard-luck injury to Keenum.
"It's very disappointing," head coach Kevin Sumlin said in the Houston Chronicle. "For not just the fans, for us, it's not good enough. We like the expectation level of where our program should be, and we didn't meet those. As a head coach, you have to evaluate where you are and look at everything you're doing. We just didn't get it done this year."
With the way the Houston offense performed, especially in starting two true freshman quarterbacks, it's hard to put much blame on that side of the ball, but the reality is the offense didn't come up with the big plays in clutch moments like it had in years past.
It should obviously be noted that Houston's 2009 offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen left the team before the season began to take over the same gig at Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys simply went on to average more than 530 yards of total offense and lead the nation in that category most of the year.
The offseason will include waiting on an NCAA ruling to Keenum's appeal for a sixth year of eligibility for a medical hardship appeal he filed in October. More importantly, though, will be what, if anything, Sumlin decides to do on defense.
Even with Keenum back, the Cougars may not be a viable league title contender without shoring up the defense though coaching changes or junior college help. And as much as Cougar fans love Sumlin, he now stands at 23-16 after three seasons. That is a game below predecessor Art Briles' 24-15 record in his final 39 games, but he at least had a C-USA title.
"Of course it's not how we wanted it to end, but we're going to use this as motivation," receiver Justin Johnson said to the Houston Chronicle. "I promise we're going to work hard and embrace this feeling of disappointment so we never feel it again."
GAME OF THE YEAR: Houston 45, SMU 20 -- The Cougars were in free fall mode. After the Sept. 18 loss at UCLA that resulted in losing star QB Case Keenum for the season, Houston lost two of three, including to lowly Rice in a cross-town rivalry. But in stepped true freshman QB David Piland for his third start of his college career and the Cougars went on the road to embarrass eventual C-USA West Division champion SMU. Houston's offense was good, especially on the ground with a solid 164 rushing yards. But it was the Houston defense -- in a season of miserable play -- that was the difference. SMU's run-and-shoot offense was able to rack up 20 points and 445 yards of offense, but also was forced into three turnovers and couldn't find the end zone in the fourth quarter. Of course depending on your definition of Game of the Year, one need not look any farther than that UCLA loss as having the most impact on the season.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB David Piland -- LB Marcus McGraw may have been the best player on the team (110 tackles, 7.0 for loss, 2.0 sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries), but considering how bad the Houston defense was, it's hard to go with that side of the ball. Piland was the fourth-string quarterback to start the year and was thrust into action after injuries to starter Case Keenum and backup Cotton Turner. And while Houston never seemed the same once Keenum went down, it's hard to blame that on Piland who averaged more than 330 passing yards per game (that would be good for third most in the nation had he played the required 75 percent of his team's games). Truth is Piland's 24 TDs in eight games while learning on the fly meant the Cougars actually didn't miss much in terms of stats. He replaced Keenum admirably in every way but the leadership the team needed and expecting a fourth-string true freshman to provide that isn't realistic. He did his job.
FAST FORWARD: Houston simply has to address its defense. Whether that be through coaching changes or raiding the junior college ranks, a quick fix is needed. Senior QB Case Keenum is applying for a sixth year of eligibility, but that won't actually matter to the team as much as finding some answers on defense. Without Keenum, Houston still put up points and yards with the best of them.
RECRUITING TRAIL: Houston's coaches know their weakness and are finally going pedal to the metal in addressing the team's inability to stop the run. Four early commitments for the team have come from big run-stuffing defensive tackles -- Joey Mbu (6-3, 300), Jaivon Slone (6-4, 280), Dominic Smith (6-3, 310) and Alex Villareal (6-4, 296). How quick those players can contribute will be key. If nothing else, the depth will be welcome.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "One thing we learned is it takes a team effort to win a game." -- Houston freshman S Kent Brooks in the Houston Chronicle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2011:
LB Marcus McGraw -- McGraw is one of the best LBs in the league, and maybe the nation, who happens to play on one of the worst defenses around. That's a tough spot to get much recognition, but McGraw is worthy. His 110 tackles this season gives him three straight 100-tackle seasons and his senior year will be an NFL audition.
RBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes -- The running back duo was hit and miss in 2010 and if it can't find consistency in 2011, it may be time to look elsewhere. Beall and Hayes had their chances to carry the load and didn't always produce in a season that saw them combine for a deceiving 1,499 rushing yards and 20 TDs. The two didn't show up down the stretch when the team needed them most and racked up many yards against weaker teams. Showing up against the tougher teams on the schedule in 2011 will be a must to get back into C-USA title form.
WR Patrick Edwards -- When Keenum went down, Edwards was the one receiver who kept pace with his 2009 numbers. His 1,100 yards receiving and 13 TDs made it clear he's the favorite target of QB David Piland and could be again next year. He also averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and had a 74-yard TD.
WR James Cleveland -- The senior had 800 receiving yards and six TDs in 2010, a season after a team high 1,214 yards in the air and 14 receiving TDs. The senior season drop off, considering it coincided with the loss of a senior star at QB, won't stop NFL teams from giving him a good look. Production like his can't be ignored and at 6-2, 205, he could find a spot in the league.
DT Tonga Matangi -- Injuries cut his lone season in a Houston uniform short and his numbers weren't great because of it. Still, when he was on the field, it was clear he was a cut above at his position. The 6-2, 290-pounder with a lot of athleticism could work his way onto a squad at the next level with some luck coming his way.
--QB Case Keenum tore his ACL in the third game of Houston's season at UCLA. That was after playing just about a half in the first two games of the season (because of a blowout over Texas State and a concussion vs. UTEP). He'll apply for a medical hardship waiver, but as a fifth-year player it is unclear whether the NCAA will grant him a sixth year of eligibility. And if it does, some will cry foul if/when he breaks all the NCAA career passing records next year.
--QB Cotton Turner was poised to finally get his shot when Keenum went down at UCLA on Sept. 18, but was lost for the season himself in the game. He has one year of eligibility remaining, but it's unclear where he'll fit into the picture in 2011. If Keenum comes back, he's the starter. QB David Piland stepped in and played well enough to earn the starting job next year, too. Turner may be relegated to back up duty regardless of what happens with Keenum's NCAA appeal.
--RB Charles Sims was ineligible (NCAA decision) in 2010, but is on pace to be ready to play in 2011.