Kevin Sumlin and Houston are in the same spot they were a year ago: in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force.
A victory over the Falcons last December, wrapping up Sumlin's first season as coach, snapped a nearly three-decade postseason winless drought.
When the Cougars play Thursday in the same bowl against the same opponent, they have a chance for their first 11-win season since 1979 after coming so close to doing even more.
“We're approaching this game much the same as we did last year,” Sumlin said. “Unless you're playing in the final game, the (national) championship game, we're going to approach this as the first game of next season.”
That seemed to work last time.
After beating the Falcons (7-5) in the 2008 Armed Forces Bowl for its first bowl win in 28 years, Houston (10-3) won its first three games this season. The Cougars went from unranked all the way to No. 12 in The Associated Press poll with consecutive victories over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech of the Big 12.
Houston got a return trip to Fort Worth after losing the Conference USA championship game to East Carolina, which got the league's spot in the Liberty Bowl.
Insisting there is no disappointment in a postseason rerun, Sumlin instead senses an opportunity for his up-and-coming Cougars.
“This a chance for us to play to finish the year (in the) Top 25 and really set up what might be a preseason top-15-type situation,” said Sumlin, an Oklahoma assistant before going to Houston.
That certainly could be the case since quarterback Case Keenum and eight of his top nine pass-catchers are underclassmen. Nine of 11 starters from an offense that leads the nation in passing (450 yards per game) and total yards (581) while averaging 44 points are expected to return.
“We're going to treat it exactly like Coach said,” Keenum said. “It's the first game of next year, and it'll be a good setup game for that.”
Keenum has thrown for 5,449 yards and 43 touchdowns with nine interceptions to join former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell as the only players in NCAA Division I history with multiple 5,000-yard seasons.
In the 38-32 C-USA championship loss, Keenum set a school record with 56 completions while throwing for five TDs to increase his school-record career total to 101. Junior James Cleveland had 19 catches for 241 yards against the Pirates, and has 101 catches for 1,182 yards this season.
Now the Cougars face the nation's best passing defense.
Air Force, in its third consecutive Armed Forces Bowl, has allowed only 149 yards passing a game even after giving up 377 in its regular-season finale at BYU.
“That will be a key part, how well we fare in that regard,” Falcons coach Troy Calhoun said. “Receiver-wise, they do as good a job making you have to defend to cover the entire field, and yet still have a very effective running game too. That will be a huge challenge.”
This is the third time the two teams have played. All the games have come in the past 16 months in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
During the 2008 regular season, Hurricane Ike forced the Cougars to move their home game against Air Force to the SMU campus. Keenum threw for 362 yards and four TDs in a rainy loss, plus had a streak of 219 passes without an interception snapped.
Then in the bowl rematch, Keenum was held under 300 yards passing for the first time in 14 games, but ran for two scores in a 34-28 victory.
“It's daunting that they have seen us twice,” Keenum said.
Calhoun compares Houston to undefeated TCU, a team the Falcons play every year in the Mountain West Conference. The BCS-bound Horned Frogs' closest game this season was a 20-17 victory at Air Force in early October.
“They are just phenomenally talented on both sides of the ball. It's one of those teams that, in their league year in and year out, is going to win a bunch of games,” Calhoun said. “(The Cougars) have probably the most productive quarterback in all of college football with outstanding wide receivers and defensively, just the way they are able to cover ground.”
Air Force is 0-6 on the TCU campus. The Falcons also lost the Armed Forces Bowl against California in 2007 and are 0-4 there vs. the Horned Frogs.
While Houston keeps the ball in the air, the Falcons predominantly stay on the ground. They are fourth nationally with 274 yards rushing a game and boast two 700-yard rushers.
Fullback Jared Tew said Air Force has to do what it has all year: Grind out yards on the ground, make first downs and control the clock.
That is the only way to keep Keenum and his receivers off the field as much as possible.