There is no doubting Case Keenum now, no denying this University of Houston football dream team's power anymore. Case & The Coogs are for real and anyone who cannot see that after Houston 30, Penn State 14 is just blindly holding onto that old big boy ignorance.
Houston will not officially enter a BCS conference until 2013, but this is a BCS program already.
There is nothing small time about this UH program, one that looks Linebacker U in the eye and sprints right by in a sunny afternoon in Dallas. If you didn't know better, you'd think that the team in red and white is the traditional power school on this day. For it's 17-0 Houston before Penn State knows what's hit it, before the Nittany Lions can locate what they cannot catch to hit.
Penn State might be the 24th best team in the country, but there is no doubt that UH is much better than the 20th best. Case & The Coogs deserve to be ranked in the Top 10 in the final poll of the season. This is a 13-1 power that suffered one blip — just like every top team in the country, except LSU, has stumbled at least once.
Keenum's got a validating victory — one that cements his status as one of the great college football quarterbacks of all time, one that should make Heisman voters who didn't even place him in the Top 5 blush in shame.
New Cougars coach Tony Levine, the seemingly unremarkable safe hire of Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades, makes sure his team understands the stakes of this distinction in the days leading up to the game. Levine drives home the difference between 12-2 and 13-1, how the two records live light years apart in terms of perception.
"Don't be a fluke!" the rookie coach tells his guys, and soon it becomes the Cougars' mantra. They may be playing first thing in the morning on Jan. 2, banished to ESPNU and a half-filled creaky old Cotton Bowl Stadium, far, far from their Sugar Bowl destiny. But that doesn't mean Case & The Coogs can't make their own big time in the TicketCity Bowl.
"We came out to make the point the one was the fluke not the 12," Levine tells ESPN afterwards, his first postgame TV interview following his first Gatorade bath.
It's dangerous to read too much about the future of the program under Levine based on one game played with Kevin Sumlin's players (some of whom started as Art Briles' players). And make no mistake, these are still Sumlin's guys. No matter how beloved an assistant you are, you're still an assistant, still a secondary figure, until you're in charge, bringing in your own recruiting classes.
But say this about Levine: He sure embraces being in charge of Case Keenum for a game.
"Don't be a fluke!" the rookie coach tells his guys, and soon it becomes the Cougars' mantra.
Levine takes Sumlin's offense and dials up the pass even more. This new leader may look like a mild-mannered insurance salesman, but Levine does not coach timid. He goes bold, attacking a power conference foe from the get go.
It's like Levine realizes he's been thrown the keys to a Ferrari for one afternoon and he's damn sure not going to spend the time gently driving to the grocery store.
He'll get Keenum to put the ball in the air 69 times — 69 throws — forget the run even exists in the first quarter. If anything, Levine comes across an even more of a mad offensive scientist than Sumlin, one who is determined to keep the UH good times whistling through the air.
A Case Of Greatness
Keenum ends the game with one of the all-time great college football goodbyes. He scales the metal steps, goes into the stands and climbs on a ladder to lead the Houston marching band in one last edition of the school fight song.
At this moment, the sixth-year senior never looks like more of a giddy, college kid. Let the overanalysis and inevitable Keenum knocking of the NFL Draft process wait. Keenum's got a validating victory — one that cements his status as one of the great college football quarterbacks of all time, one that should make all those Heisman voters who didn't even place him in Top 5 blush in shame — to celebrate first.
So much for being the product of lesser competition. Keenum absolutely feasts on the fifth-rated defense in the nation, piling up 533 yards and three touchdowns on 44 completions against Penn State. That's more yards than Heisman runner-up and NFL darling Andrew Luck ever threw for in all his games against BCS opponents.
Levine dials up the pass even more. This new leader may look like a mild-mannered insurance salesman, but he does not coach timid.
Keenum's no fluke. He's a force. Case closed.
"If you look at what we did against a Top 10 defense in the country," Keenum tells the ESPN cameras, "you can't deny that."
Houston's offensive line, with senior center Chris Thompson leading the way (before he leads that sneak Gatorade bath attack on Levine too), renders Big Ten Player of the Year Devon Still (who's guaranteed to be the high NFL Draft pick that Keenum will not be) a complete non-factor. Patrick Edwards, Keenum's favorite target, hauls in nine passes for 229 yards — including the 40- and 75-yard touchdowns that leave the Nittany Lions gasping.
This isn't about Penn State being distracted by the horrific Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. It's about Penn State being completely outplayed by a much better team.
Houston shows why it would have been a worthy opponent for LSU in the national championship game if it hadn't stumbled against Southern Mississippi, which is arguably a better team than the Iowa State squad that No. 3 Oklahoma State stumbled against. Case & The Coogs can throw the football on anyone.
"I couldn't ask for much better than this right here," Keenum says on TV. "In the Cotton Bowl, with all my friends and a great UH crowd.
Keenum grins. This is one of the greatest college football players in history, one who leads a clear Top 10 team. It's time to recognize.
No fluke. Just a wildly-entertaining force — a big boy program in disguise.