HOUSTON — Case Keenum's first Senior Day was nothing to celebrate.
Houston's injured quarterback hobbled onto the Robertson Stadium turf on crutches last Nov. 13, with the season's smallest crowd offering lukewarm, empathetic applause.
Keenum was resigned that this was how his college career would end, a season and final home game ruined by a freak injury to his right knee.
The NCAA, though, granted the school's appeal to give Keenum one more chance to get it right and, boy, have he and the Cougars taken advantage.
No. 7 Houston (12-0, 8-0 Conference USA) has rolled through the regular season behind its record-setting quarterback and earned the right to host Saturday's league championship against No. 24 Southern Mississippi (10-2, 6-2).
Not even the ever-positive Keenum could've imagined how different this once-and-for-all final home game will feel compared to last year. Or how much would be at stake.
An undefeated season. A Bowl Championship Series berth. An invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Everything could be one win away.
"We've done some special things," Keenum said, "but we know that there are even more special things out there."
It could be one grand finale for Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, too.
The main drawback of the Cougars' march into the national spotlight is that Sumlin has emerged as a target for just about every higher-profile program looking for the next coaching superstar.
The Cougars have cleanly swatted away distractions all season, from nagging BCS talk to the first visit to campus by ESPN's popular "GameDay" program.
Keenum said not even speculation about Sumlin will take the Cougars' eyes off the prize.
"We've had a good mindset, focusing on the task at hand, and that's the same thing for this week," Keenum said.
Sumlin says he'll meet with athletic director Mack Rhoades after Saturday's game to talk about his future.
A former Oklahoma assistant, Sumlin's name seems to come up every year when coaches are fired elsewhere, and he thinks his team will handle the rumors with ease, just because everyone is so used to hearing them.
"I can't control who's going to write about me going where," he said. "I see things that people have asked me about that are really outlandish. I have a track record of handling things."
Southern Miss is dealing with the same kind of speculation about its coach, Larry Fedora. Like Sumlin, Fedora is wrapping up his fourth season and he's mentioned as a candidate for several openings.
The Golden Eagles are 32-19 under Fedora, and they're finally having the breakthrough season he's long expected.
"It's probably taken longer than I wanted it to, to be honest," Fedora said. "I felt like we've been in a position to do it each and every year and just didn't get over the hump or didn't get it done for a lot of different reasons.
"This year, this team has overcome a lot of things to put themselves in a position to play for the conference championship."
The league's trophy is really what Saturday's game is about, and the outcome will be dripping with irony, no matter who wins.
The Cougars can secure the league's first BCS berth, just as they're preparing to bolt for a more lucrative conference. Southern Miss, meanwhile, can deny the league its best chance to earn a BCS bid and the multimillion dollar payday that would come with it.
"That's a tough one, you know?" Fedora said. "I'm sorry. That's the only thing I can say."
The one thing Conference USA can bank on is both teams putting on an offensive show.
The teams have scored an average of 58.8 points together in the 13 meetings, and the winning team has scored at least 30 points in nine of those. The Golden Eagles won 59-41 in Hattiesburg last year, and Houston won 50-43 at home in 2009.
"There have been some crazy things that have happened in this game," Sumlin said.
This year, both teams have as much firepower as ever.
Keenum is the Football Bowl Subdivision's career leader in just about every significant category for quarterbacks, and the Cougars have scored at least 35 points in all 12 games, hitting 56 or more in half of them.
Tyron Carrier is Conference USA's career receptions leader (307) is 10 catches shy of moving into second place on the FBS career chart, and Patrick Edwards has 41 TD catches, fifth in FBS history.
The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, have averaged 37 points in their last seven conference games, and senior quarterback Austin Davis needs 77 yards passing to break his own single-season school record.Comment on this story
Southern Miss junior Tracey Lampley could be the most versatile player on either side, with 885 yards rushing, 728 yards receiving and more than 1,800 career yards on kick returns.
The stadium atmosphere could be as wild as the game itself.
Students began camping outside the ticket office at 3 a.m. Monday, and about 400 had gathered when Rhoades arrived at work about 6 a.m. When the office opened, the school sold out its allotment of 4,000 student tickets in about four hours.
"I think it is a situation where everyone will be excited," Sumlin said. "Our fans will be as excited as anyone. We can't wait to play Saturday."