Case Keenum will get his stats. But what about Houston’s other unfinished business?

Part of Mid-Major Week.

Far be it from the NCAA, in all its dispassionate wisdom, to play favorites with the fate of its own record book at stake. But when it decided in January to grant Houston quarterback Case Keenum's request for a medical hardship, the announcement might as well have come with condolence notes to Timmy Chang and Graham Harrell and a gallon of whiteout for the publishing department: With a sixth year of eligibility, Keenum is a mere 3,486 yards and 27 touchdowns shy of the career records currently owned by Chang and Harrell, after posting totals in 2008 and 2009 that make that gap look like a short hop over a puddle. If his reconstructed knee holds up, both records will be his long before Thanksgiving.

In other words, Keenum has managed to hit the cosmic "Reset" button, picking up the game almost exactly where he left off last summer, before he was felled by a season-ending knee injury in the Cougars' third game. Then, as now, he was expected to smash every record in sight by force of sheer volume. Then, as now, he was widely expected to lead Houston back to the Conference USA title game in December. Then, as now, he faced the doubts about whether he deserves to be considered anything more than another "system" quarterback lucky enough to play in an offense that keeps the pedal to the floor against inferior defenses.

And then, as now, he can only answer the skeptics with the championship that's eluded him to date.{YSP:MORE}

In the first place, Keenum puts it in the air a lot — he averaged more than 45 passes per game in 2008 and more than 50 in 2009 — and a disproportionate number of those throws are of the "long handoff" variety: Short, high-percentage bubble screens, swing passes, slants and quick hitches designed to move the chains with run-after-catch yards, a system tailor-made for a smart guy with a less-than-spectacular arm. Keenum's average completion in '09 covered 11.2 yards, which might qualify as "average" if you're being generous. In the second place, his outrageous numbers came largely under the watch of ex-offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, a former Mike Leach protégé who proved last year at Oklahoma State — and hopes to prove again as the new head coach at West Virginia — that there isn't a Division I quarterback he can't turn into a star.

Outside of the system, Keenum has been made to look like a mere mortal in each of his last four appearances against teams that aren't Texas State. Coming off the regular season from hell in 2009, he subsequently served up three picks to underdog East Carolina in a 38-32 loss in the Conference USA Championship Game, followed by a six-interception effort against Air Force in a straight-up meltdown in the Armed Forces Bowl. Before his injury last year, he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 31 games in a blowout win over UTEP and was hounded into two more picks in the first half of an eventual loss at UCLA. Altogether, Keenum tossed twice as many interceptions in those four games (12) as touchdowns (6), and has dropped his last four starts outside of Robertson Stadium.
Not that any of those points will keep him from his records, or from lifting Houston back into the black against a shootout-friendly schedule that fails to include a single team — not one — that finished in the top 40 nationally last year in total or scoring defense. (Outside of reigning West Division champ SMU, no other D on the upcoming slate even finished among the top 60 by either measure.) After an opening-day visit from UCLA, the next nine weeks should be like shooting fish in a barrel, and the only reason to stop there is the shaky assumption that a veteran SMU outfit will bring some semblance of D to Space City on Nov. 19.

If not, Keenum may not face a respectable defense until the C-USA title game, or even the bowl game. Conceivably, he could go the entire season without coming across a single opponent that rises to the level of "competent" against the pass. That's very, very good news for the box score, and for Houston's championship ambitions if its own defense holds up in the face of a few equally smoldering attacks from the likes of East Carolina, SMU and Tulsa. (See: Brennan, Colt, circa 2007.)

It also means there are no excuses for the kind of struggles that derailed a banner season two years ago. If the Cougars aren't playing for some hardware on the first weekend in December, the red carpet into the record books is going to come with one very bitter pill at the end.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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