For the first time since 2006, the Houston Cougars are 4-0.
And as the team takes that unblemished record into UTEP on Sept. 29 for its C-USA opener, the Cougars' veteran players are trying to emphasize to their younger teammates that once league play begins, the intensity level amps up.
"I like to talk to the guys and let them know that you never know which week in conference is going to be a huge week," senior quarterback Case Keenum said. "You can look back and say, 'Oh that was a huge win,' or look back in years past, and we could say that week was really important. At the time we didn't really know how important it was as far as this one field goal here or one point there.
"It could be the first game of the year, like in 2006 when we beat Rice 31-30 and it wound up being the reason we went to the conference championship and were able to play at our place. You have to realize that you have to take every team and every game seriously. Treat everything like it's the conference championship because in college football, every week is a playoff."
For the Cougars, preseason goals of an undefeated season, a C-USA championship and the longest of long shots, a BCS Bowl invitation, are all still alive and well. The team is knocking on the door of the AP and USA Today coaches' top-25 polls and once again has the nation's highest-ranked passing offense.
Things are going well, but they've been down this road before.
In 2009, the Cougars were ranked No. 12 in the nation when they visited the Sun Bowl in El Paso, and the UTEP Miners knocked them off 58-41.
"I remember when they rushed the field," senior defensive lineman David Hunter said. "That always sticks in my head."
The Cougars have already shown they can overlook a team. They were heavily favored at North Texas, and the Mean Green jumped on them early before the Cougars pulled away in the second half. And Houston was also favored on the road at Louisiana Tech on Sept. 17 and fell behind 34-7 late in the third quarter before mounting a furious 28-point comeback for the 35-34 win.
"I've played a lot of games in this league, and I've seen how teams can come out and play really well and hard," Keenum said. "I know we've got to go in every week during conference and play our absolute best."
--Sixth-year senior QB Case Keenum certainly is no stranger to his Sept. 29 opponent, the UTEP Miners. This will be the fifth time Keenum has faced the Miners in his college career, and he can thank this series for almost 10 percent of his near record-setting career passing numbers.
Last year before he tore his ACL in Week Three at UCLA, Keenum torched the Miners for 279 yards in less than three quarters of play. Through his first four games against the Miners, he's passed for 1,411 yards, nearly 10 percent of his career total of 15,120 yards, which is No. 3 all-time in NCAA history. Keenum has also tossed nine touchdowns compared to just one interception against the Miners in his career.
"I think that's illegal, and if our compliance people had any guts at all, they would turn the athletic director from Houston in for violations," UTEP head coach Mike Price joked in response to a question about having to face Keenum five times. "That Mack Rhoades guy we know real well and know what kind of guy he is, so we'd better double check that thing."
Price also said he thinks Keenum is "one of the best I have ever coached against or played against."
As for Keenum, as you might imagine, he loves the UTEP/Houston series.
"I always enjoy playing UTEP," Keenum said. "We've had back-and-forth games ever since I can remember, and that's going back to even when I was a recruit. Jordan Palmer was the quarterback there and Kevin (Kolb) was the quarterback here. I don't know if I'd call it a rivalry, but it's always a good game."
--Houston enters C-USA play Sept. 29 at UTEP one spot out of the USA Today top 25 poll as the top vote getter in the "others receiving votes" category. Houston received 70 points to No. 25 Michigan State's 153.
In the AP poll, Houston has 38 points and trails Michigan State (51) in the "others receiving votes" realm. No. 25 Arizona State had 112 points in that poll.
--As of Sept. 25, Houston was ranked No. 1 on the C-USA weekly stat sheet in scoring offense (44.2), total offense (585.0), passing offense (446.2), passing efficiency (169.8), punting (44.1), field-goal percentage (1.000, 3-of-3, tied with Tulsa), PATs (24), first downs (116) and third-down conversion percent (60.3).
The team ranked last on only one category: Opponents' fourth-down conversion percentage (71.4 percent).
SERIES HISTORY: Series tied, 4-4 (last meeting, 2010, 54-24 Houston).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: What can you say about the Houston offense? It is the No. 1 ranked passing attack in college football (446.3 passing yards per game) thanks to senior leaders in QB Case Keenum; WRs Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson; and RBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes. How dangerous is this offense? Houston has produced 88 plays this season that have gone for 10 or more yards, second only to Oklahoma State's 89 among FBS schools. The Cougars also have six plays that have gone for 50 or more yards, trailing only Georgia Tech (11) and Clemson (7).
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: It was just FCS Georgia State, but the Houston Cougars did pitch a shutout on Sept. 24. It was the team's first since a 45-0 shutout over Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 18, 1999, a stretch of 146 games. The Cougars also closed out their Sept. 17 game at La. Tech in dominating fashion over the final 20 minutes. But the UTEP Miners, this week's Houston opponent, have always managed to rack up yardage and points against the Cougars, so Sept. 29 will be a big test, even if the Miners' offense is banged up. LBs Marcus McGraw, Derrick Mathews and Sammy Brown have been the strength of the defense, combining for 108 tackles so far this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When conference play gets started you have to change your whole attitude because now we are talking about a conference championship." -- Houston senior DL David Hunter.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Houston at UTEP, Sept. 29 -- The all-time series is tied 4-4, but Houston is 4-2 since UTEP joined C-USA. In those six games, the teams have combined for 457 points (76.2 points per game) and 6,109 yards of total offense (1,018 per game).
KEYS TO THE GAME: Houston expects to win this game even if its defense struggles. That's how much confidence the offense has right now. But that was the same attitude Houston, then ranked No. 12, went to El Paso with in 2009 before losing to UTEP. Houston's defense will have to pressure UTEP's quarterback and continue shutting down the Miners' nearly non-existent run game to keep them off the scoreboard.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
LB Derrick Mathews -- The freshman is coming off a nine-tackle game against Georgia State, has 36 tackles (four for loss) on the season and continues to mature into the heir apparent for senior LB Marcus McGraw.
P Richie Leone -- He doesn't get used much with the Houston offense being as good as it is, which is why he isn't eligible for the national rankings that require a punter to average a minimum of 3.6 punts per game. But if he was, Leone's 47.93 yards-per-punt average would rank him No. 9 in the nation.
RBs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes -- UTEP allows 191.5 rushing yards per game, and that is with one of their four opponents (NMSU) only rushing for 16 yards. The Miners aren't good at stopping the run, so Beall and Hayes could have big games in El Paso on Sept. 29.
--There aren't many injuries of note for the Houston Cougars heading into C-USA play. Even some of the bumps and bruises the team did have they were able to rest during a 56-0 win over FCS Georgia State on Sept. 24.