(Hattiesburg, Ms.) – Before the current system of determining the College Football National Champion, the College Football Playoff, there was the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The BSC created five bowl games from the 10 top ranked teams as determined by a complicated formula of polls and computer selection methods to determine relative team rankings. The BSC began to create the steep divide between the Power Five conferences and everyone else. One stipulation was that if a Non-Power Five went undefeated, they would automatically qualify.
In 2011, the season was setting up for controversy. LSU was the clear #1 with a 12-0 record and the other contenders. Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Virginia Tech all had one loss. There was one other undefeated team, and they were looking to spoil the party. The Houston Cougars, under then Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, finished the regular season undefeated and looked to complete a perfect regular season and make a case for the National Championship opportunity against LSU.
The only thing in the Cougars way was their opponent in the Conference USA Championship game, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Southern Miss had lost two regular season games, Marshall and UAB, but went undefeated in the West Division of Conference USA to earn the championship berth.
Houston hosted the championship game because of the better record, and they were listed as a 14-point favorite. The Cougars were poised to impress a national TV audience and representatives from the Orange and Sugar Bowls. They were already preparing their arguments on why they should get bumped up as the only remaining undefeated team to face LSU.
The Cougars were led by Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum who would become the all-time leading NCAA passing yardage leader in history. Things didn’t start well for the Houston high-octane offense; they went three and out on the opening drive and were forced to punt. The Golden Eagles defense left an early message.
Southern Miss, on the other hand, had early success and jumped out to a 14-0 lead behind the heroics of their starting QB, Austin Davis. Golden Eagle Head Coach Larry Fedora had devised the perfect game plan and they were executing. Houston seemed to restore order with back-to-back touchdowns that tied the game. With momentum now with the home sideline, Davis took it right back with a 69-yard TD pass to Dominque Sullivan to retake the lead; they would never trail again.
With nine minutes left in the game and the Cougars down 42-21, desperation time set in and on a 4th and 16, Keenum was sacked like a ragdoll to effectively end the game and the championship hopes. Southern Miss would close out with a 49-28 victory and Conference USA Championship.
Afterwards, everyone went separate ways, Sumlin took the Texas A&M job and Fedora left for North Carolina. Southern Miss closed out with a victory in the Hawaii Bowl over Nevada to finish 12-2. After Fedoras exit, the Golden Eagles named South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson as the coach for 2012, and it was the most dramatic change in records from one year to the next when they went 0-12. Michigan would benefit most from Houston’s misfortune. With the Cougars out of the way, the Wolverines ended up at the Sugar Bowl, where they beat Virginia Tech. Ironically, Conference USA was the biggest loser, they never would send a team to the BCS and enjoy the accompany large bowl payout
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