The University of Houston is, without question, one of the very best Group of 5 football programs today. The Cougars (9-3) began the season both as top NY6 pick for the Cotton Bowl, and as lead expansion candidate for the now ineptly-titled BIG12.
Meanwhile, the San Diego State Aztecs are back-to-back Mountain West Champions, with a 10-3 record. SDSU was a dark horse candidate for the Cotton Bowl as well, and has a superstar in its ranks who just passed Ricky Williams in NCAA career rushing. The word “elite” is increasingly applicable to SDSU.
This Saturday, the two G5 titans go head-to-head in a match that is sure to garner the attention of the entire NCAA community. This game may very well determine which university ultimately houses the top Group of 5 football program.
Mountain West Connection’s San Diego State writer Ted McGovern got together with the Underdog Dynasty’s U of H writer Cyrus Smith for a special Las Vegas Bowl edition Q&A session.
1. Is the University of Houston fan base as excited about playing in the Las Vegas Bowl as San Diego State, or is this a let down to a New Year's Six bowl game return?
I wouldn’t say excited, given the hype for this season after defeating Florida State in the Peach Bowl last year. The prospect of joining the Big 12, reaching for the College Football Playoff, and retaining coach Tom Herman- all seemed very plausible at the start of the season. Months later, not only did Houston not reach the Big 12, they lost Herman to Texas and failed to win the American Athletic Conference.
With that said, things could be far worse for the Coogs. Thanks to the Pac 12 not being able to send a team to Vegas, Houston gets a chance to play in one of the marquee games of the bowl season against a really good San Diego State team. Add in the fact that this will be Major Applewhite’s first game as Houston’s head coach and Coog fans are pretty interested how Houston will look.
2. How will the departure of Tom Herman and the promotion of Offensive Coordinator Major Applewhite to head coach impact Saturday’s game?
Huge. It’s no secret that the players bought in to Tom Herman’s coaching philosophy. We’re about to see whether Herman was the brilliant mind behind Houston’s offense or if Applewhite should get a lot more credit. Given Applewhite’s shaky time as the offensive coordinator at Alabama we’re about to find out.
3. What are the greatest concerns that the Cougars have about the Aztecs?
Stopping Donnel Pumphrey. Thanks to Ed Oliver the rushing defense has been pretty good this year but the pass defense has been a major concern. Given how great Pumphrey has been this year, Houston must shut him down. The Aztecs don’t seem to boast the same fire power as the offenses in the AAC such as Tulsa and Memphis through the air. If Houston can shut him down they should be in good shape to win the game. However, if the Aztecs can establish the run and use play action we could be in store for a track meet.
4. Who on the Cougars will turn heads on offense and defense on Saturday?
Greg Ward Jr. has been the face of the offense over the past few years. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and likes to get the ball to fellow senior Chance Allen and junior Linnell Bonner. Both wideouts are explosive playmakers and dangerous in space. On defense Ed Oliver is amazing. He really has the potential to be like Ndamukong Suh when he was at Nebraska.
5. How was it that Houston was able to beat Oklahoma and hold in check Louisville's Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, but finish third in the the AAC's West Division?
Injuries and expectations. Mid-way through the season Houston was losing players left and right. Couple that with a deflating loss to Navy and a hungry SMU team and here we are. Houston is probably the most talented team in the AAC but the league is deep enough where you can’t take any breathers. Once the Coogs beat Oklahoma everyone was thinking playoffs. A loss to Navy ended that and as a result you saw a less than interested Houston team down the stretch, Louisville game aside. The added speculation of whether Herman was going to stay or go didn’t help matters either.
6. A collision course between the UH defense and Aztecs offense including #2 all-time Running Back Donnel Pumphrey is imminent. What will happen?
Houston’s rushing defense in S&P+ ranks fourth in the nation, third in Rushing Success Rate and third in Stuff Rate. I don’t expect Pumphrey to have a great day Saturday afternoon.
7. The Cougars are 3 1/2 point favorites coming into Saturday’s game. That’s not a big margin. What is your prediction for the outcome of Saturday’s game?
I’m actually shocked the line isn’t higher. Houston has played in a tougher conference, has a more talented team and is great at stopping the one thing that SDSU loves to do on offense. I expect Houston to come out energized and show the nation that they are more than a team that was coached by Tom Herman. Major Applewhite has a chance to immediately win over Coog fans who wanted Lane Kiffin instead and I think he will. Greg Ward Jr. and the Houston offense puts on a show and Ed Oliver and the Houston defense will hold Pumphrey under 100 yards. Coogs big.
Final Score: Houston 38- San Diego State 17
8. During 2013, the University of Houston was voted the “Least Sexy College in America.” What measures have been instituted to remedy this?
The university has made a full commitment to bringing sexy back.