DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 02: Case Keenum #7 of the Houston Cougars carries the TicketCity Bowl trophy after a 30-14 win against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Cotton Bowl Stadium on January 2, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Houston's dominance of Penn State made it clear that it was Houston's one loss, not its 12 victories, that was the fluke.
If it took a Ticket City Bowl thumping of Penn State (don't let the final score fool you, the Cougars absolutely dominated that game) to convince you that the University of Houston had a truly special football program this year, well, you haven't been paying attention.
For those vote-casting idiots who dropped Houston all the way down to #19 on the basis of one loss, hopefully this game served as a wake-up call, a realization that when the Coogs' offense is clicking, it can move the ball against absolutely anybody, and that Houston's defense is improved enough to make this a very good all-around football team. One of the ten best in the country, without question. The Houston faithful already knew that, and hopefully the rest of the country realizes it now, too.
And despite what last year's perfect storm of bad luck-induced 5-7 record would have some believe, Houston's ability to compete with top tier teams from top tier conferences is nothing new. It's been evident since at least 2006, when Houston beat Oklahoma State, lost a last second heart-breaker to Miami, and played a competitive bowl game against South Carolina. It was 2009 that really put the Coogs on the map, as they beat #5 Oklahoma State on the road, knocked off Texas Tech at home, and then traveled to Starkville to beat an up-and-coming Mississippi State team that really should have beaten LSU that year.
Houston's trouble all along, however, was managing to stay out of their own way, and not come out slow against C-USA opponents. What made the 2011 team so special was that they finally had enough experience to play victory-worthy football every week. At least for the first twelve weeks.
Regardless, the season ended in appropriate fashion. The Cougars got their showdown with one of the well-respected defenses that were supposed to slow down UH's "gimmick" offense, and they put up 600 yards, an offensive explosion so impressive that if you watched the game, you still can't believe they only scored 30 points.
The fitting season finale saw Case Keenum and the Cougar offense breaking records, as they have all year long. Patrick Edwards took his familiar position, deep behind the other team's safeties, hauling in Keenum bombs, and sprinting untouched to paydirt. Marcus McGraw led the team in tackles, of course, and Sammy Brown extended his national lead with two more tackles for a loss.
To focus on the things that didn't happen this year - the Cougars didn't win a conference championship, make a BCS bowl game, or retain their head coach - would be to miss the importance of the things that did. The University of Houston enjoyed a continued renaissance of fan support, and drew more national attention to the program than anyone thought possible. Houston's football dominance in 2011 helped make the school's impending move to an AQ conference not only a possibility, but an inevitability. At this point, any conference looking to expand by adding current members of non-AQ conferences would have been out of its mind not to select UH.
In the "What have you done for me lately?" world of college athletics, this season is already fading from memory, fans already turning their sights to next year. But before you do, take a moment and appreciate just what a special football team Houston had this year. A team that deserved all the accolades it received, and could be competitive with absolutely any team in the country on any given day.
But you already knew that.