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Conference USA Prepares For Bowl Season As Cougars, Owls Prepare For Off-Season

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Where did things go wrong for Houston? Has Rice figured things out? Who is playing where this postseason? SB Nation Houston has the answers.

In a way, it was indicative of the entire season. The Cougars did some things right, did more things wrong, got behind, and then made a comeback which ultimately fizzled out. Texas Tech got a 35-20 home victory, Houston got a premature end to its season, the 5-7 mark leaving the Cougars under .500 at season's end for the first time since 2004.

All this from a season which began with BCS-busting expectations.

It was a season where nothing went right. UH's most prolific offensive player from last year, running back Charles Sims, was declared academically ineligible before the season began. Heisman hopeful Case Keenum went down, quickly followed by back-up Cotton Turner. The team's leading receiver from a year ago, James Cleveland, missed two games - both Cougar losses - with team-mandated suspensions. A significant percentage of the school's fan base turned against the starting quarterback. The defensive front seven couldn't stay healthy, with Radermon Scypion, Matangi Tonga and Matt Nicholson suffering injuries - Scypion's and Nicholson's were of the season-ending variety.

The 2010 season will also be remembered as the year some of the luster came off of Kevin Sumlin. Last year, Sumlin led the program to victories over #5 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Houston was ranked as high as #12. It wasn't a perfect season, but the Cougars were relevant again for the first time since the breakup of the Southwest Conference.

Houston fans will spend this off-season wondering, "How good are we, really?"

After all, this was a more experienced, deeper team than the one that went 10-4 last year. Injuries and the like were a thorn in Houston's side, but those happen to every team, every year. Was this team really that dependent on Case Keenum? And why doesn't the defense ever seem to improve?

The Cougars looked absolutely out-classed no fewer than four times this year - UCLA, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Texas Tech. In one out of every three games the team competed in, they never really had a shot. That's alarming.

If the coaching really has gotten better, and if recruiting really is blowing away what the previous staff accomplished - things that were givens before the start of this season - it's time for it to show.  Maybe 5-7 happens when your Heisman-caliber quarterback gets hurt, but it can't happen again.

Look for a more in-depth, position-by-position breakdown of the season that was in this space in the coming days.

Rice finishes 4-8, on two-game winning streak

After finishing 2-10 in 2009, the Owls had reasons for optimism heading into the 2010 campaign. Instead of results, they got moral victories, and the realization that a young team might still be a year away.

The Owls hung closer with Texas-Austin to start the season, and then won on the road against North Texas in game two. When things went south, the fans on South Main could hang their hats on victories over the crosstown Cougars, and a two-game winning streak to end the year. But ultimately, 4-8 isn't going to cut muster, even at a school with limited football resources like Rice, which let Ken Hatfield hang around as coach from 1994 to 2005 without a bowl appearance.

The offense improved incrementally. There still wasn't one quarterback who could take control of the team all year long, but the overall production from the position improved in every category. The Owls averaged two yards per pass attempt better than 2009, while throwing five fewer interceptions.

Sam McGuffie wasn't quite the revelation many hoped and expected. His rush average was a pedestrian 4.5, and he didn't break a 20-yard run until the ninth game of the season. But the Owl run game was a step above where it was a year ago, and McGuffie and emerging playmaker Jeremy Eddington have two and three years of eligibility remaining, respectively.

The defense was unforgivably poor, however. The Owls didn't hold an opponent under 30 points until the final game of the season, and forced just 14 turnovers on the season. Only three significant contributors are lost heading into next year, but experience doesn't equate to talent. The bottom line is that the defense hasn't shown any significant improvement in Chuck Driesbach's four years as defensive coordinator, and I can't help but wonder if he'll get a fifth.

Scott Solomon, a preseason all-conference choice on the defensive line, broke his foot and missed the 2010 season. If he chooses to utilize a redshirt and return for the 2011 season, he could be a difference maker. If he can help the Owls improve even a little bit on the defensive side of the ball, there's no reason for Rice not to go bowling in 2011.

Conference USA Set To Send Six To Bowls

Last week, an astute reader pointed out that I was using an alphabetical list of Conference USA's bowl affiliations incorrectly as an order of preference amongst the conference's bowl partners. Yikes. In my defense, still lists the same order. I can't find an authoritative list anywhere, but I've tweaked my predictions slightly based on the best information available.

The previously-mentioned concerns that Conference USA might get shut out of the Liberty Bowl should be put to bed. There was a complicated scenario wherein the SEC might not fulfill all of its eight non-BCS bowl tie-ins, and could have then forced the Liberty Bowl to take a Big East team instead of a Conference USA team, because blah blah blah, it's really not important. What matters is that ten SEC teams are bowl-eligible, so even if Auburn loses the conference championship game, and still gets a BCS bowl invite, in addition to the one South Carolina would automatically receive, the SEC will fulfill all of its bowl games, and the Liberty Bowl will still get to follow tradition and take the Conference USA champion.

And frankly, thank God. It's bad enough being in a third-rate conference without the indignity of watching the SEC tell you they'd rather play some 6-6 Big East team than your conference champion. Can we all just pretend that was never even a possibility? Thanks.

So we can safely say that this weekend, SMU and Central Florida will battle for the conference championship, and the right to play in the Liberty Bowl. We also know that Southern Miss and East Carolina have accepted invites to the Military and St. Petersburg Bowls, respectively, and holy crap, I'm two-for-two on my bowl predictions from last week.

With this in mind, here's our most recent postseason football projections for the conference, with accepted bids in all caps.

December 18: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

Texas-El Paso vs. Florida International. If this happens, go ahead and call it the early favorite for the "Bowl Game Most Frequently Used By Pundits When Looking For An Example To Mention In Passing To Prove That There Are Too Many Bowl Games." The Miners face off with the Golden Panthers, and even if the latter can pull off a victory this weekend, the two schools will be a combined 13-11. Whee.

December 21: Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl

SOUTHERN MISS vs. South Florida. The Bulls seem like the logical opponent for the Golden Eagles. Other possibilities include Louisville and Syracuse. Either way, USM extends its bowl streak to nine straight years. If they lose, they will finish the season with exactly seven wins for the seventh time in those nine years. Is that weird? I feel as though I should be weirded out by that. Can I get a ruling?

December 24: Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl

Tulsa vs. HAWAII. The Warriors are once again, unimaginatively, going to their own bowl game. Both of these teams will be glad to be playing postseason football again, after missing out last year.

December 29: Military Bowl

EAST CAROLINA vs. Boston College. The Pirates will face off against some lower-echelon ACC team, and the Eagles still feel like the right choice. If BC does get the bid here, we will get to see the quite resistible force against the easily movable object - ECU's swiss cheese defense against Boston College's offense, which has failed to top 23 points in a game since week two. I'm actually silently rooting for this, so we can see which unit is worse.

December 30: Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl

Southern Methodist vs. ARMY. The Black Knights get their first bowl bid since 1996, and potentially face the hometown Mustangs. SMU already faced Navy's option attack this season, shutting it out in the first half, before surrendering 28 points after the break, and taking the loss. Would that experience help them out any against Army?

December 31: AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Central Florida vs. Mississippi State. Will the Liberty Bowl be able to grab the surprising, ranked Bulldogs? Or will UCF get an underachieving traditional power, along the likes of Florida, Georgia or Tennessee? I'm kind of hoping for Kentucky, just for the best odds that Conference USA could end its four-game losing streak in this game.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.