Beyond the Boxscore
Case Keenum is a sports star without a marketing machine (the modern-day equivalent of an emperor who has no clothes). But he has hope and an undamaged right arm.
And maybe that's enough.
The University of Houston quarterback granted a rare sixth year of eligibility does not have a fancy, big dollar Heisman Trophy PR campaign behind him this year. That doesn't mean everyone nationally has forgotten about the man with the Cougars' season resting on his arm though — starting with Saturday afternoon's 2:30 p.m. home game against UCLA.
This is the season opener and the biggest game of the season wrapped into one for Houston. The Bruins are the only team from a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference that Keenum will play the entire regular season.
Sports Illustrated included Keenum as one of its 15 Heisman Favorites in its College Football Preview Issue — despite the fact that Las Vegas has him listed as a 35 to 1 longshot to win college football's most prestigious individual award and some prognosticators have forgotten to mention him at all. SI takes its 15 candidates through six steps to determine its expected Heisman winner.
Keenum passes the first of those steps (the winner must be a QB, RB or multidimensional receiver or defender), but the magazine eliminates him in step two (the winner must play for a BCS national championship contender). The final analysis from SI on Keenum: "Playing for Houston in Conference USA will keep him off the national radar."
Ouch. And so true.
Especially if Keenum and the Cougars lose to UCLA. This is the season opener and the biggest game of the season wrapped into one for Houston. The Bruins are the only team from a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conference that Keenum will play the entire regular season. It's not like a win at Robertson over UCLA would immediately vault the Cougars into the Top 25. UCLA is only considered a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 team.
But it would be a huge first step. It would set up Houston's entire season. Lose, on the other hand, and . . . well, SportsCenter will likely forget that Keenum was ever granted that medical hardship sixth year. Unless it's to show a quick highlight when he breaks Timmy Chang's all-time NCAA passing yards record.
Count Sports Illustrated among the disbelievers. The magazine doesn't even have the Cougars winning their division in Conference USA. The sports bible expects Tulsa to come out of the C-USA West and face off against Southern Miss in the conference title game. Which would make 2011 one of the most disappointing seasons in the University of Houston's history.
The 23-year-old Keenum is more than just a football star on UH's campus. He's a living, breathing, throwing symbol of a university that sees itself on the make, a burgeoning power player deserving of official Tier One status from the state and a place in a conference like the Big 12, now that you mention it. When school president Renu Khator calls for a pep rally to celebrate the Carnegie Foundation declaring that the University of Houston is Tier One worthy, she makes sure Keenum is there — right on stage with her.
And when Keenum is about to return to football from reconstructive knee surgery and play his first game since last October, there's Khator tweeting a picture of herself with her new Cougar-football-jersey-wearing baby grandson.
Uncertainty in the air
Of course, along with all the excitement, there's a fair share of doubt. How will Keenum look in his first game back with a rebuilt knee? Playing against the very team that knocked him out no less?
One of the reasons that Keenum doesn't have the same type of Heisman promotion behind him going into this season as he did entering last season is that it seems almost unfair to put that much pressure on a walking experiment. There aren't many sixth-year college stars to compare Keenum with.
Keenum's never pretended this is some Rocky movie.
His every throw will be analyzed and dissected. If he has a big game and the Cougars win, everything will be right in the red universe. If not? Where does everyone go from here? Will the big crowds continue to come to Robertson if the big goal is gone and the opponents are minor?
"I've thought about this for a long time and I've lost a lot of sleep over it," Keenum said this week when asked about returning. "It's been one thought that has probably consumed my mind for the last year now, so it's going to mean a lot to me and I'm really excited to get back out there. It's going to be a dream come true honestly to get back out there in Roberston Stadium in front of all the fans.
"It's a feeling like no other."
Keenum's never pretended this is some Rocky movie. He's never downplayed how hard the rehab and wait to see if he even was still a college quarterback was. He's never feigned that everything's right back to the way it was before he started taking those hard shots last year — first against UTEP, then in Southern California when the lights very well could have went out on his college career.
"Honestly over the past few weeks it's the best I've felt," he said. "Camp was tough being on my feet practicing twice a day. Those days are tough, those days are a grind, but this past weekend we got our legs back underneath us. This week is the best I've felt in a year. I'm really excited.
"This is probably the closest to normal I'm going to get as far as legs go."
Will it be close enough? Sports Illustrated doesn't think so. Now, it's time for Case Keenum's arm to have its say.