Yet another fairly new bowl game to be living under its third different name -- Birmingham Bowl, PapaJohn's Bowl -- and soon its fourth, this year's event pits the Vanderbilt Commodores out of the SEC against the Houston Cougars of Conference USA. Legion Field in Birmingham is the site for the 1 PM (ET) contest, with the opening game of the NFL's Wild Card Round coming on just as the BBVA Compass Bowl ends.
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It's the first ever gridiron meeting for the Commodores and Cougars, and Vandy has been installed as a field goal favorite. College football odds for the match also include a 54 point total, down a half from the opening bell.
'Dores Go Bowling For 3rd-Straight Season
James Franklin is batting 1.000 at Vanderbilt as he prepares to take his team to a bowl game for the third straight year since he took over in Nashville, the first time the Commodores have made three successive postseason appearances. Vanderbilt (8-4 straight up, 6-6 against the spread) finished a level 4-4 in conference play, and enters the BBVA Compass Bowl with a 4-game win streak, covering three of those matches.
Defense is the strength of this year's Commodore crew, ranking 25th in the country in total yards allowed (351.1 ypg) and 21st in fewest passing (204.3 ypg). The stop unit could be missing a couple of key players in the backfield, however, as starting cornerback Andre Hal is questionable due to a shoulder injury and safety Andrew Williamson is listed with the same status due to a leg injury. Hal was tied for fifth on the team with 40 tackles and also picked off two passes.
Austyn Carta-Samuels directed a very average offense at quarterback, completing nearly 69% of his passes but registering a poor 11/9 TD-to-interception ratio. His favorite target has been fellow senior Jordan Matthews who led all SEC receivers with 107 catches, 4th-most in the country.
It's not a spectacular offensive line in front of Carta-Samuels, allowing 32 sacks and also rating poorly in run blocking. The line might be without starting right tackle Andrew Jelks, an All-SEC Freshman team selection. Jelks didn't play in the season finale vs. Wake Forest, and is questionable at this time for the Houston game.
Cougs Back In Bowl After 1-Year Absence
Tony Levine just completed his second season at UH, guiding the Cougars back into the bowl season following a 5-7 mark in 2012. Levine took over at Houston (8-4 SU, 10-2 ATS) at the end of the 2011 season when Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M, and coached the team to a 30-14 win over Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl.
The Cougars appeared to be a player for the C-USA title after they got off to a 7-1 overall start in 2013, including a 4-0 mark in conference play. But then came a tough stretch in November when UH dropped three straight close affairs, two of them on the road to ranked Central Florida and Louisville squads.
Houston's passing attack, directed by true freshman John O'Korn, sits 25th in the nation averaging 284 yards per game through the air. O'Korn threw for nearly 2,900 yards with 26 TDs against eight INTs, and the good news is he should have his top receiver for the bowl game with Deontay Greenberry listed as probable. Greenberry was one of 16 college players to average at least 100 yards per game, racking up more than 1,100 yards receiving despite missing the season finale vs. SMU with a leg injury.
On the defensive side, the Cougars allowed 420 yards per game which has them near the bottom of that column, but it was more of a bend, don't break unit since they surrendered only 20.2 PPG, 16th fewest in the country. Houston also led the nation by forcing 40 turnovers, easily putting the Cougars atop the turnover margin list (+25).
This matchup has the makings to be an entertaining game, and my crystal ball suggests it comes down to a late boot to decide it. I'm adding the Cougars plus the points to my college football picks.
My pick: Houston +3Reg. Season: 31-15 (+14.5)