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Saturday Storylines: A new BCS sleeper? Houston looks to validate its rise against UCF

Josh O'Korn Houston quarterback John O'Korn (5) leads all FBS freshmen with 22 passing touchdowns. (Mel Evans/AP)

If it’s possible for the leader of a BCS conference to fly under the radar, that’s exactly what Houston is doing. One look at the current American Athletic Conference standings tells the entire unexpected story. You won’t find AAC darling Louisville, which is coming off an 11-win season, holding court at the top. And you won’t see Central Florida, which upended the Cardinals on Oct. 18, as the league’s top team.

Instead, the Cougars have leapfrogged both BCS-ranked programs in the conference standings. Houston holds the No. 1 spot in the AAC with an unbeaten league record (4-0) and seven total wins, two better their showing in Conference USA last season. Yes, the same Houston squad that lost last season to Texas State by 17, East Carolina by 20 and SMU by 30 could potentially clinch a BCS berth.

But the team originally picked to finish sixth in the conference has yet to earn the respect it feels it deserves. That notion hasn’t gone unnoticed by Houston players.

“Our team has a little saying, ‘S2P,’ which means ‘Something To Prove,’ sophomore wide receiver Deontay Greenberry said. “We go into every game with a little chip on our shoulder. Of course, that’s going to motivate us.”

Greenberry and Houston have plenty to prove as they travel to Orlando on Saturday. The Cougars take on fellow AAC newcomer UCF at a time when many expect the Knights to emerge as the league’s BCS representative. But those hopes will be short-lived if No. 21 UCF can’t handle Houston’s offense, which is emerging as one of most consistent units in the country.

In coach Tony Levine’s second season at the helm, the Cougars ranked No. 11 in the country in scoring offense at 41.1 points per game. They’ve scored at least 46 points on four occasions, including a 49-21 victory at Rutgers on Oct. 26, and they’re currently the only FBS program to score in every quarter this season. Dating back to 2012, that streak runs 39 consecutive periods.

That production is even more impressive when considering the program’s relative drop-off last year. Houston nearly clinched a BCS berth under Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Case Keenum in 2011, but when Levine took over after Sumlin’s departure for Texas A&M, disappointment ensued. The team’s scoring average dropped 17 points while opponents scored 14 more per game on the Cougars’ defense. Ultimately, a 13-win team from the previous year managed just five victories, including only one over a bowl-eligible program.

On offense in particular, Levine attributed much of the struggles to youth. The receiving corps was especially inexperienced, with freshmen Greenberry and Larry McDuffy and sophomore Daniel Spencer playing key roles in the offense. A few other names, like freshman tailback Ryan Jackson and juco transfer receiver Xavier Maxwell, were asked to carry much of the load.

Levine said one full year of workouts has worked wonders for the chemistry and understanding of the offense.

“For the most part, all those names I just mentioned were new to the program and were asked to play for us [last season],” Levine said on this week’s AAC teleconference. “But then they went through the winter and spring practice, they went through summer voluntary workouts, and the players around the quarterback position all have improved tremendously.”

Yet one freshman has been indispensible in this season’s Houston offense. Quarterback John O’Korn, the jewel of Levine’s 2013 recruiting class, became the Cougars’ full-time starter in Week 3 against Rice after concussions ended the playing career of starter David Piland. O’Korn leads all FBS freshmen with 22 touchdown passes thanks in part to Greenberry. A consensus top-10 recruit at his position in 2012, and an original commit to Notre Dame, Greenberry has emerged as one of O’Korn’s favorite weapons, leading the team with 948 yards and nine touchdowns.

“John’s been really important,” Greenberry said. “He came in, and he didn’t know if he’d be the starting quarterback or not. But he competed. When David went down, John told me I’d be one of his main targets and he’d try to get me the ball.”

O’Korn, Greenberry and the Houston offense likely haven’t faced a test like UCF. The Knights’ defense allows only 221 yards per game through the air and has given up a mere five passing touchdowns this season. George O’Leary’s squad is also coming off a bye week, and its last matchup after a bye resulted in an upset of Louisville.

Levine said he knows O’Korn will be a target for the Knights – of the freshman’s five starts this season, only two have come on the road – but the coach likes the poise displayed by his quarterback.

“Naturally when you look at your opponent and they’re starting an 18-year-old true freshman at quarterback, defensive coordinators start licking their chops,” Levine said. “But [O’Korn has] seen all that. He's a young man that, with the way he carries himself, he doesn't act like an 18-year-old true freshman.”

Few expected the Cougars’ emergence in only one season in the AAC, especially after a relatively fruitless tenure in C-USA. Though Houston never finished lower than third in the C-USA’s West Division, the program only reached the conference title game three times in 17 seasons, with two league championships. Despite a move to the tougher AAC, Levine has his Cougars again believing conference titles – and BCS berths -- are within the program’s grasp.

Houston will have to overcome some history to emerge victorious on Saturday. The Knights have taken three of four games in the all-time series, including the Cougars’ last visit to Orlando in 2009. Two fourth-quarter touchdown strikes from Keenum weren’t enough to keep UCF from claiming a 37-32 win over No. 15 Houston, the Knights’ first victory over a ranked opponent in school history. Levine was Sumlin’s special teams coach in 2009, but don’t expect a feeling of revenge on the sideline this time around.

“Our two quarterbacks were still wearing Pull-Ups when they went to bed in 2009,” Levine said. “It's a completely different team here. On their end, certainly Coach O’Leary is still there, but he's really done a great job of establishing that program. They definitely have an identity.”

Houston’s identity as a potential BCS sleeper, however, remains undetermined.

The other big ones:

• No. 10 LSU at No. 1 Alabama: How will the Crimson Tide react to their first true test in almost two months? Since surviving Texas A&M on Sept. 14, Alabama has beaten its last seven opponents by an average of 31.6 points. A matchup with LSU isn’t likely to offer that same cushion. Plus, the Tide might not be able to afford a loss with Florida State nipping on their BCS heels.

• Nebraska at Michigan: Neither Nebraska nor Michigan is ranked, but somehow the Cornhuskers only sit behind Michigan State in the Big Ten’s Legends Division with a 3-1 conference record. However, Nebraska’s season should probably come with an asterisk.

Time to bounce back?

 Texas Tech: Kliff Kingsbury’s fast start in Lubbock came to a crashing halt during the last two weeks. But those games were against two ranked teams in Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Those fortunes could reverse against unranked Kansas State, even though the Wildcats have handled the Red Raiders in their last two meetings.

• Florida: If you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all, so perhaps we won’t harp on Florida’s offense too much. Still, it must be noted that the Gators have improved their scoring in each of the last three contests: Six points vs. LSU, 17 vs. Missouri, 20 vs. Georgia. Perhaps that attack turns around against a visiting Vanderbilt team that’s had very little success in The Swamp:

• Arkansas: The Hogs have dropped six straight games, including five to ranked foes. That’s not the start Bret Bielema envisioned in his first stint in Fayetteville. If Arkansas is going bowling this year, it needs to win its next three games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU. That all starts on Saturday in Oxford.

Upset brewing?

Virginia Tech at No. 14 Miami: Thanks to a little defense, Miami hung around early against Jameis Winston and Florida State in last week’s eventual loss. That doesn’t mean the ‘Canes looked like a true top-10 team. Returning home after a two-interception performance against the ‘Noles, quarterback Stephen Morris might find trouble against Virginia Tech’s top-ranked pass defense. The Hokies give up a mere 150.6 passing yards per game and 5.69 yards per attempt, and Miami won’t have tailback Duke Johnson to lean on if Morris can’t find his groove.

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