Despite an 11-0 record and ranking in the top 10 in the BCS, AP top 25 and USA Today coaches' top 25 polls, the Houston Cougars aren't even guaranteed yet a trip to the Conference USA title game, let alone a BCS Bowl berth.
That all comes down to their Nov. 25 road showdown with Tulsa, a team that, while it has just an 8-3 overall record, matches Houston's 7-0 league record and would be the C-USA West champs if it beats the high-powered Cougars this week.
To their credit, at least publicly, the players have been insistent they aren't letting their goals of C-USA titles and BCS games affect their preparation.
"We don't want to worry about that now," senior running back Michael Hayes said. "We just need to focus on beating Tulsa. We need to take it game by game."
But make no mistake, the lofty expectations of this year's team have always been about BCS or bust, which is not at all unlike the expectations in 2009, when an early season loss to UTEP derailed those dreams.
This year, the team has handled the expectations better, according to head coach Kevin Sumlin.
"I think we have handled it better this year as a team and as players," Sumlin said in the Houston Chronicle. "Quite frankly, I think I've handled it better than I did a couple of years ago.
"Sometimes dealing with success is a lot more difficult than dealing with failure. Fortunately, we have a group of guys who have been through this before."
That's a sentiment echoed by Sumlin's players.
"We understand what's going on," senior wide receiver Justin Johnson said in the Houston Chronicle. "We've been here before. When we were here last time, we sort of let everything get to us. We definitely don't want to let that happen again."
But as much as the Houston players and coaches are trying to convince themselves that they've been through this before, the fact is they haven't.
While 2009's crew may have had early season thoughts of being good enough to go undefeated, that ended by their fourth game of the season. The team carried the same hype into the 2010 season, when in Week 3. an ACL tear for quarterback Case Keenum led to a wasted year.
The fact is the team has never been playing for a 12-0 record (and hopefully a 13-0 record a week later). The Cougars have never been ranked so high in the BCS standings. They've never been as close to reaching those lofty expectations as they are right now.
--Senior LB Sammy Brown is coming off one of the best games of his career in a Nov. 19 win over SMU.
Brown had 10 tackles with three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in the 37-7 victory and was named the C-USA Defensive Player of the Week as well as earning the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week honor.
Brown has 26 tackles for loss this season, easily the most in the nation (No. 2 Vinny Curry, a fellow C-USA defender from Marshall, has 20.5). Brown's 12.5 sacks this season is good for a tie for second most in the nation with Georgia's Jarvis Jones. Both trail Illinois DL Whitney Mercilus, who has 13.5 sacks this season.
--QB Case Keenum on Monday was named a finalist for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. He joins two fellow Texas natives in Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Stanford's Andrew Luck as the three finalists.
"It's an honor to be a finalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, and I really want to thank my teammates," Keenum said. "These are all team awards in my mind, and I am happy that the folks at the Davey O'Brien Foundation recognized our team and the success we have had so far this season."
Keenum leads the nation in just about every passing category the NCAA keeps track of, not just this season, but ever. The all-time passing and total yardage leader has thrown for 4,269 yards and tossed 38 TDs to just three interceptions this season.
The O'Brien Award winner will be announced Dec. 8.
--Houston and Tulsa rank No. 1-2 in total offense in C-USA. Houston, which also leads the nation in total offense, averages 618.3 yards per game. Tulsa boasts an otherwise impressive 465.1 yards per game.
That means the Nov. 25 showdown in Tulsa features two teams that average 1,083.4 yards per game. The two teams also average a combined 88.8 points per game (Houston 53.1, Tulsa 35.7).
SERIES HISTORY: Houston leads Tulsa 19-7 (last meeting, 2010, 28-25 Tulsa).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: SMU has one of C-USA's best defenses, and while it looked early on in the Nov. 19 game as though the Mustangs were containing the Houston offense, the reality is the Cougars moved the ball with relative ease (513 yards of total offense) and scored 37 points, their second lowest total of the season but still more than any of the other 11 teams in C-USA are averaging this season. QB Case Keenum is putting the final touches on his Heisman Trophy resume and is on the same page with his skill-position players unlike few college football players have ever been.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: For all the criticism of this unit, the Cougars' defense has playmakers and has been a unit that has had more solid outings than poor ones. While it did surrender 42 points to UTEP and 34 to Rice, two teams entering this weekend's games below .500, the defense also boasts five games of keeping opponents to 17 or fewer points and ranks No. 2 in the league in scoring defense, allowing just 21.4 points per game. LBs Marcus McGraw and Sammy Brown head up as good a linebacking corps as C-USA has anywhere, and they've been able to make up for an average to below-average secondary and defensive line.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our approach has been pretty consistent this year. We try to be honest with ourselves and each other every week. We try to address the good things and the bad things." -- Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin in the Houston Chronicle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Houston at Tulsa, Nov. 25 -- The C-USA West Division title is on the line here as the league's top two teams square off. This is also a meeting of the league's top two offenses in terms of yardage, and it will have some national attention, as Houston is still in pursuit of filling one of the BCS bowl slots with another two wins.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Houston's offense shouldn't have a problem getting its customary 35-plus points. The question here is how, if at all, the defense will be able to contain Tulsa's star QB G.J. Kinne. Tulsa will put up points, too, and if Houston's defense can get a few stops and maybe even a turnover or two, the Cougars should go to the C-USA title game, but it will require a top-level effort from the defense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Patrick Edwards -- The senior has 4,020 career receiving yards, which is just 66 receiving yards shy of the C-USA record held by former Rice standout WR Jarett Dillard. This year, Edwards has 1,315 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches.
K Matt Hogan -- Last week the senior set the NCAA record for most PAT conversions without a miss in a season with 78. He enters Houston's Nov. 25 game at Tulsa ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring with 108 points (10 field goals, 78 extra points). He trails only SMU RB Zach Line in scoring per game, as Line's 102 points on 17 touchdowns has been accomplished in just 10 games, and he averages 10.2 points per game to 9.8 for Hogan.
LB Marcus McGraw -- The senior is tied with UAB SS Jamie Bender for fourth in C-USA in total tackles with 105. McGraw averages 9.5 tackles per game.
--LB Sammy Brown hurt his ankle Nov. 10 at Tulane and didn't participate fully in practices until Nov. 18. That didn't seem to hurt him in a win over SMU Nov. 19. Brown had three sacks and 4.5 of his team-high 10 tackles were for a loss. He'll start Nov. 25 at Tulsa.
--RB Bryce Beall, who returned to the lineup Nov. 10 at Tulane after a hamstring injury cost him the previous three games, had just two carries for 14 yards on Nov. 19 vs. SMU. He is expected to get more touches this week at Tulsa, even if he has not yet returned to the level of being an equal part in the three-person running back rotation as he was earlier in the year.