As the lowest-ranked of 10 remaining undefeated FBS teams in the country, the Houston Cougars still have plenty of critics.
But they also have every opportunity in the coming weeks to continue to watch their national profile expand.
The Cougars debuted Oct. 16 at No. 19 in the initial Bowl Championship Series standings and managed during their bye week to jump from No. 25 to 21 in the AP top-25 poll and from No. 22 to 20 in the USA Today coaches' poll.
"It's a good thing when you see your program represented in the BCS standings, and it certainly helps with visibility for our university, but as a football team, it doesn't change our approach," Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Again, it just means we have played well to be one of 10 remaining unbeaten programs, and it means we have a lot of opportunity ahead if we continue to prepare and play at a top level."
That opportunity ahead may not include any opportunity to quiet the critics who point out the Cougars still have only one team on their schedule currently boasting a winning record (SMU). Houston's next four opponents after its bye week include four teams with a combined 7-19 record, starting with a 3-4 Marshall team on Oct. 22 in Houston.
But not only do the Cougars have a chance to get to 10-0 if they win those games, they will also get plenty of national media attention over the next month as senior quarterback Case Keenum closes in on three of college football's most prestigious all-time individual offensive records -- career passing yards, career total offensive yards and career touchdown passes.
Throw in an Oct. 17 invitation to join a BCS conference league in the Big East, and the spotlight is there for Houston to make its case to the nation that they are not pretenders.
Of course, with as hit and miss as this defense has been this season, that spotlight could also be a very good opportunity for the critics to be proven right in any week if the Cougars slip up because they can't keep an opponent from lighting up the scoreboard in an all-too-common C-USA shootout.
--The Big East on Oct. 17 formally extended an invitation to Houston to join the conference in all sports beginning in the 2013 season.
The Big East has been scrambling lately to get some new football powers to join the league in an effort to preserve its automatic qualifying status into a BCS bowl game every season. Already widely considered the weakest of the six AQ conferences in terms of football, the Big East lost Pittsburgh and Syracuse earlier this year, which led to TCU, a program that hadn't even joined the league yet, to bolt for the Big 12 earlier this month.
In Houston, the Big East would be gaining a huge media market and a program that, at least this season, is boasting a 6-0 record and a national ranking, which is more than all but one Big East team (West Virginia) can claim. Houston officials have not yet commented on the invitation.
--How good has Houston's offense been this season compared to the rest of the nation? At 603.7 yards of total offense per game, the Cougars not only lead the nation in total offense, they have more than a 52-yard cushion on the No. 2 offense (Oklahoma State).
Maybe even more mind-boggling is that the Cougars could not gain a single yard in their Oct. 22 game with Marshall and still be averaging 517.4 yards per game, which would currently rank them as the No. 9 offense in the country. Should the team fail to gain a single yard in its next two games, the Cougars would still be ranked in the top 27 teams in the country in total offense.
--Houston's nine interceptions through six games this season leads C-USA and ranks No. 17 in the nation. Houston had just 13 interceptions in 2010 and 11 in 2009.
SERIES HISTORY: Houston and Marshall are tied 1-1 in the series (last meeting, 2008, 37-23 Marshall).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: QB Case Keenum is running the Houston offense arguably as well as any college football player in the nation, and that argument could be extended beyond just this season. Relative to the competition Houston is playing, there simply isn't a better offense in college football. Houston leads the nation in total offense (603.7 yards per game) and passing offense (435.5 passing yards per game) and is No. 4 in scoring offense (47.0 points per game). Considering all that is without having put much of an emphasis on a run game that features three start-worthy running backs in Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and the best of the bunch, Charles Sims, the Cougars might not have seen their best game yet on offense.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Houston knows the critics are right. Its defense has faltered too often in recent years for anyone to give the Cougars much credit, even when the unit does string together two dominating performances in the past three games -- a 56-0 win over Georgia State on Sept. 24 and a 56-3 win over East Carolina on Oct. 8. The secondary has been opportunistic with nine interceptions to lead C-USA, and the linebackers are well above average in this league with Sammy Brown, Marcus McGraw and Derrick Mathews. But the defensive front still can't stop the run on a consistent basis, and until that happens, the Houston defense will still be the weak link for the program.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a lot of opportunity ahead if we continue to prepare and play at a top level." -- Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Marshall at Houston, Oct. 22 -- Houston will be looking to improve to 7-0 on the season and keep its national rankings in its Homecoming game against an improved Marshall team that already has two C-USA wins under its belt.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The script doesn't change from week to week for the Cougars. The defense is a crapshoot, so the offense needs to be on point each week and score at least 40 points to ensure the Cougars remain unbeaten. With the way QB Case Keenum has this offense playing, though, that isn't all that difficult.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Case Keenum -- The sixth-year senior is closing in on the three big all-time NCAA passing records everyone has been waiting for. The first of the three could come as early as Houston's Oct. 22 game vs. Marshall when Keenum, who currently has 16,781 yards of total offense in his career, could pass former Hawaii QB Timmy Chang (16,910 yards) on the NCAA's all-time list for total offense. Keenum needs 129 yards of total offense for that record. The career touchdown pass and career passing yards records could come in early November based on Keenum's current season averages.
Houston secondary -- The Cougars do have a league-high nine interceptions this season and have done a lot of their damage against the pass (Houston ranks No. 5 in C-USA against the pass) with as many as three starters out of the lineup due to injury. The bye week should have this unit 100-percent healthy, and considering the Oct. 22 opponent, Marshall, ranks dead last in C-USA in passing (175.4 yards per game), this could be a big week for the Cougars' secondary.
RB Charles Sims -- The sophomore has led the team in rushing in each of the past two games before Houston's bye week and has 195 rushing yards on 21 carries in his last two outings (at UTEP on Sept. 29 and vs. East Carolina on Oct. 8). Prior to that, Sims had just 16 carries for 60 yards on the season.
--CB D.J. Hayden, S Chevy Bennett and S Colton Valencia each missed the Oct. 8 win at East Carolina with various leg injuries, but all three should play Oct. 22 vs. Marshall. Hayden also missed the Sept. 29 game at Houston.