HOUSTON (AP) — Though Kevin Sumlin has never been big on inspirational quotes, the Houston coach came up with a motto to help his team maintain its focus amid all the national attention the Cougars have received this week.
ESPN’s popular "Gameday" program made its first-ever visit to the campus last week and the team was bombarded with media requests and responsibilities leading up to Saturday’s regular-season home finale against SMU. The Cougars promptly marched to a 37-7 victory behind their best defensive performance of the year.
"All I told them was, ‘Ignore the circus, and ride the ride.’ They get that," Sumlin said. "If you want to ride the roller coaster, let’s just get on the roller coaster, don’t worry about all the other stuff that’s outside of it."
The No. 8 Cougars (11-0, 7-0 Conference USA) have seemingly stayed immune from distractions all year, marching to lopsided victories behind record-setting quarterback Case Keenum and the nation’s most prolific offense.
Now comes their toughest test of the season and one of the most important games in program history: a showdown with Tulsa (8-3, 7-0) on Friday for the league’s West Division title and the right to host the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 3.
The Cougars have grander goals in mind, too. They can clinch their first 12-win season, validate it with a signature victory and move a giant step closer to a Bowl Championship Series bid.
"We talked about setting history," Sumlin said. "As a team, these guys have been able to handle everything that has happened this year. They can handle success. We do talk about the milestones, whether they are individual or a team."
The team goals are front and center now, since Keenum has virtually run out of records to break. He’s become the Football Bowl Subdivision’s career leader in total offense (18,771 yards), passing yards (17,855), touchdown passes (145) and completions (1,427).
He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing a knee ligament in the third game in 2010, and he got to celebrate his final regular-season home game in front of a record crowd at Robertson Stadium last week.
All the storybook season needs now is a perfect ending.
"You spend a little time after each game reflecting and enjoying it," Keenum said, "but we know there is so much more ahead of us. We will enjoy everything after the season is over."
The Golden Hurricane can ruin everything, and grab some national respect with a victory. Tulsa has won seven straight games since one of the toughest Septembers any team played, with losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Boise State.
"We know the opponent and we know what they are capable of," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "I think it’s fabulous they have the ranking they have, and it’s well-deserved. By the same token, it doesn’t matter to us. That’s a team that stands in our way to win the West Division title. It think our guys understand what we’ve done the last several weeks is what we have to do again."
And if not for Keenum, Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne would probably be a candidate for the league’s top offensive player honor. The dual-threat senior quarterback ranks third in the league in total offense (278.3 yards per game) and helped Tulsa score at least 37 points in five of the last six games. Kinne was the league’s offensive player of the week after completing 21 of 27 passes for 300 yards and rushing for 33 yards and a score in a 57-28 win over UTEP.
"When you have a guy that has skills, but is also a great competitor," Blankenship said, "it does a lot for your program and your offense."
Both teams also boast two of the league’s top defensive playmakers, too. Houston senior outside linebacker Sammy Brown leads the nation in tackles for loss (26) and Tulsa senior linebacker Curnelius Arnick ranks fourth nationally in overall tackles (12.2 per game).
But with Houston and Tulsa ranking 1-2 in Conference USA in total offense, their matchup is more likely to turn into a high-scoring offensive show than a defensive struggle.
Blankenship isn’t so sure.
"Both defensive coaches and staffs and players would probably think it’s not going to be a shootout," Blankenship said. "It really could be a shootout, or it might be one of those 3-touchdown games or something where someone runs away with it. I’ve been in all of those. That’s what makes it fun as you play this thing out."