Southern Miss just cost a lot of schools a lot of money. And it was worth every penny.

Dr. Saturday

Conference USA Championship: Southern Miss 49, Houston 28.
There's plenty to say about what Southern Miss won today as an underdog, on the road, on national television, against the No. 6 team in the nation. We'll get to that. But it pales in comparison to what Houston just lost.

In the first place, the blemish will cost the Cougars the first undefeated season in school history, a top-10 ranking and an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series. It cost prolific quarterback Case Keenum any realistic shot at the Heisman Trophy, and probably a trip to New York for the ceremony. It may have cost UH coach Kevin Sumlin his status as de facto frontrunner for any number of big job openings, namely Texas A&M and Arizona State.

With the Cougars out of the running, it leaves the five "Have Not" conferences without an automatic BCS berth for their conference champions facing the prospect of being shut out of the big-money bowls entirely for the first time since 2005, a snub that's expected to cost them in the neighborhood of $12.5 million from the BCS pie. It cost Conference USA its first ever representative in a BCS bowl, worth an additional $8 million.

It's not just Houston, or its star quarterback: Every school outside of the "Big Six" BCS conferences comes out of the loss with significantly less in the "Projected Earnings" column than it would have had if Houston had finished its run to 13-0, including Southern Miss. And it was worth it.

Southern Miss has registered a lot of upsets and a lot of winning seasons over the past two decades, but as USM alum, I assert with some authority that it enters every season with only one realistic goal: Win the Conference USA championship. Everything else is a distraction or a pipe dream.{YSP:MORE} The Eagles aren't on the radar for an invitation to one of the "Big Six" leagues. Despite their brief flirtation with BCS ambitions earlier this season, they've never been close to one of the prestige bowls. They haven't landed in the top 25 of the final polls since 1999. Before today, 10 wins was the most USM had managed in a season since unknown sophomore Brett Favre was the quarterback in 1988 — and even that breakthrough had come in part by virtue of dropping the traditional visit to an SEC heavyweight from the non-conference schedule.

The one worthy, attainable goal within the Eagles' grasp every single year is a conference title and corresponding a trip to the Liberty Bowl, and they hadn't grasped it since 2003. Now, the season is an official success.

If the championship wasn't satisfying enough, the win itself is. As two-touchdown underdogs, the Eagles held the No. 1 total and scoring offense in the nation to its worst output of the year in terms of total yards, yards per play and points. Keenum, owner of every major Division I passing record over the course of his career, was sacked twice, picked off twice and finished with his worst pass efficiency rating of the season. (His second pick was returned for the icing touchdown in the fourth quarter, giving the USM defense a D-I record of its own with its eighth interception returned for a score this season.) For the game, the Cougars punted nine times, went three-and-out six times and turned it over on downs twice. There is nothing misleading about the final score: It wasn't close.

There's nothing quite so decisive to be gleaned from the resulting shuffle in the BCS standings. Of the four at-large bids to big-money bowls, two appear to be reserved for Alabama and Stanford, both of which will have automatic bids coming their way for finishing in the top five of the final standings. The third slot, previously reserved for Houston, is now up for grabs. The fourth, previously up for grabs, could be decided by tenths of point in a computer algorithm.

The most direct beneficiary of the Cougars' collapse appears to be Michigan, ranked 16th in the current standings, which will almost certainly be in line for an at-large bid if it moves into the top 14 in the final standings on Sunday night; Houston's loss, along with a loss by Michigan State or Wisconsin in tonight's Big Ten Championship Game, virtually guarantees that the Wolverines will get there as the second choice out of the Big Ten. The last spot could go to any number of contenders, most likely the Big 12 runner-up (either Oklahoma State or Kansas State, depending on how the Cowboys' fare tonight against Oklahoma) or Mountain West champion TCU, which could be in line for an automatic nod if it moves from No. 18 in the current standings to No. 16 in the final version. If that happens, the Horned Frogs will save the big payday for the smaller conferences that Houston's loss threatens to take away.

The last at-large bid almost certainly will not go to the Mountain West runner-up, Boise State, which could finish in the top five and still find itself snubbed thanks to a missed field goal on Nov. 12 that delivered the MWC title to the Horned Frogs. On such margins, millions could change hands.

But there were no slivers of doubt left in Houston: In arguably its biggest game in nearly a decade, Southern Miss delivered its best game. Everyone else can deal with it.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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