Vanderbilt is headed to a bowl game for the third straight season and will be making its first trip to an out-of-state postseason game since the 1982 Commodores played in the Hall of Fame Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham. James Franklin’s team struggled early in the season — the Dores were 3–3 overall (0–3 in the SEC) after six games — but won five of its last six games, highlighted by victories over Georgia at home and Florida and Tennessee on the road.
Vanderbilt, however, will not have the services of starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. The fifth-year senior had surgery to repair a torn ACL a few days after the season-ending win over Wake Forest. Carta-Samuels injured his knee in a mid-October win over Georgia but managed to start the final three games, wins over Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest. Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman who started two games and played significant snaps in three others, will get the nod for the Dores.
Houston is back in a bowl game after missing out on the postseason in two of the last three years. Tony Levine’s first season as a head coach did not go too well — the Cougars went 5–7 in 2012 — but he bounced back with an 8–4 overall record and a 5–3 mark in the new American Athletic Conference. The Cougars lost to BYU by one point in non-conference action and lost to the three teams that finished ahead of them in the AAC (UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati) by an 6.3 points. This is a solid team that doesn’t have any bad losses but doesn’t really have any good wins, either.
Vanderbilt vs. Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Vanderbilt -2.5
Vanderbilt’s Key to Victory: Run the ball
Vanderbilt features one of the elite wide receivers in the nation in senior Jordan Matthews, but the Commodores’ first order of business will be to establish the running game. Vanderbilt’s rushing numbers down the stretch weren’t impressive — the Dores averaged under 3.0 yards per carry in four of the final five games — but there’s no doubt it will be a big part of offensive coordinator John Donovan’s game plan, especially with Robinette at quarterback. The redshirt freshman, a better runner than passer at this stage of his career, rushed for a combined 85 yards on 19 carries in the final two games of the season. The Commodores will also have starting running back Jerron Seymour back in the lineup. The sophomore only carried the ball five times against Tennessee and did not play against Wake Forest while nursing a leg injury. Vanderbilt will look to attack a Houston defense that ranked ninth in the AAC in stopping the run, allowing 143.8 rushing yards per game.
Houston’s Key to Victory: Keep forcing turnovers
Houston has done one thing better than any team in college football in 2013 — force turnovers. The Cougars lead the nation in both takeaways (40) and turnover margin (plus-2.08), which is a huge reason why this team improved from five wins in 2012 to eight wins in ’13. Houston has forced at least one turnover in every game and has had three or more takeaways in nine of 12 games. This team can win a game without winning the turnover margin — the Cougars went 1–1 with a margin of zero — but Levine would much prefer to keep this seemingly unsustainable pace going for at least one more game.
Key Player: John O’Korn, QB, Houston
O’Korn, a true freshman from Florida, was thrust into the starting role early in the season when veteran David Piland was forced to retire from the sport due to ongoing issues with concussions. O’Korn responded with a terrific season, completing just under 60 percent of his passes for 2,889 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Now, however, he must play his first game without offensive coordinator Doug Meachem calling the plays. Meachem resigned following the end of the regular season to take a similar position at TCU, leaving Travis Bush, formerly the running backs coach, as the play-caller. Bush called plays for the final 11 games of the ’12 season after offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt was fired following a Week 1 loss to Texas State. O’Korn will also be facing an outstanding secondary that features four senior starters, including two All-SEC performers (safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal). The Commodores rank second in the SEC with 16 interceptions and had a total of 11 in their last four games. You can bet that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will do all he can to confuse the true freshman quarterback.
On paper, you would figure any 8–4 team from the SEC would be quite a bit better than an 8–4 team from the American Athletic Conference. But the boys in Vegas have only made Vanderbilt a 2.5-point favorite. The Commodores, despite winning their last four games, weren’t playing great down the stretch. They played well enough to win but struggled in home games against Kentucky and Wake Forest and had to rally to beat Tennessee late in the fourth quarter. Houston has put up some impressive offensive numbers against some inferior defenses, but has struggled against the better defensive teams on its schedule — scoring 14 vs. UCF, 13 vs. Louisville and 17 vs. Cincinnati. With the possible exception of Louisville, Vanderbilt figures to be the best defensive team Houston will face this season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Houston 23