After a one year bowl hiatus, the University of Houston Cougars are preparing to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in the BBVA Compass Bowl on January 4th, in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cougars (8-4, 5-3 AAC) look to cap a successful first season in the American Athletic Conference with their ninth win against a Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4 SEC) team looking to reach the same win total. This will be the third time that Houston has matched up with an opponent from the vaunted SEC in a bowl game. The Cougars are 1-1 in those contests, and have a record of 9-11-1 all -time in bowl games.
After finishing 5-7 in head coach Tony Levine’s first season in 2012, Houston rebounded to finish fourth in the AAC. It was a good season that was oh so close to being a great one, as all four of the Cougars losses were by seven points or less. That includes three consecutive November losses to the teams that finished ahead of them in the conference, at Central Florida, at Louisville, and vs Cincinnati. That losing streak dashed their conference championship and BCS hopes, but the Coogs rebounded by shutting out the SMU Mustangs 34-0 to conclude the regular season.
That shutout capped a better than expected season for a young defense that led the nation in takeaways with 40, which led to U of H also finishing first in the nation in turnover margin at +23. The Coogs defense allowed 20.2 ppg this season, compared to 24.7 for the Commodores. The Cougars will be facing a backup QB in this one, as Vandy will be without their starter Austyn Carta-Samuels. Carta-Samuels underwent knee surgery to repair a torn ACL following the conclusion of the regular season. Patton Robinette will receive his third start of the season in place of Carta-Samuels, and will be tasked with protecting the football against this opportunistic defense. He will lead the Commodore offense that averaged 29.2 ppg, good for 71st in the nation.
Besides the play of the defense, the biggest development for the Cougars in 2013 was the emergence of true freshman QB John O’ Korn. O’Korn took the reins for the Coogs in week two after incumbent starter David Piland was forced to quit football due to multiple concussions. O’ Korn took over the offense and played with a poise beyond his years, as he passed for 2,889 yards with 26 TDs to just 8 interceptions. His play earned him a spot on the Athlon Sports Freshmen All-American team and the AAC Freshman of the Year award as well.
O’Korn leads an offense that finished 35th in the nation in scoring at 33.9 ppg. His main target will be sophomore WR Deontay Greenberry. who burst on the national scene in 2013 with 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 TDs. While the Cougars are best known for their high-powered passing attack, they rely on a two headed monster in the backfield that brings balance to the offense. Running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow are both capable to do damage on the ground and in the passing game as well. Jackson averaged 4.8 ypc with six rushing TDs, and Farrow averaged 5.1 ypc with five scores on the ground.
Houston will be looking for its second consecutive bowl victory, while Vanderbilt will look to win back to back bowl games for the first time in school history. Vandy is appearing in its third consecutive bowl, after appearing in only four bowl games total over the program’s first 120 years. Although they may not be one of the SEC’s traditional powers, Houston will still have their hands full with the Commodores. Vanderbilt has been one of the better SEC teams of late, compiling an impessive 15-4 record in its past 19 games. All indications are that the BBVA Compass Bowl, the second to last bowl game before the BCS National Championship Game, will be a good one.