Cougars and Aztecs clash in Sin City in matchup of two of the top Group of Five teams
The college bowl season is about to kick off and the Las Vegas Bowl Presented by GEICO has quite the matchup to offer viewers. The Houston Cougars and San Diego State Aztecs meet in this year’s Las Vegas Bowl, which will have to serve as a consolation prize for the 2016 season and the potential each had to play for something bigger this bowl season. Houston was believed to be the top pick to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six lineup, as the Cougars were a season ago. San Diego State was right in the mix as well until dropping a pair of games in Mountain West play to end the regular season. The Aztecs rebounded, however, and beat Wyoming 27-24 in Laramie in the conference's championship game.
So how do these programs get motivated for this one? That should be easy given the leaders on the field both have to rally behind.
Las Vegas Bowl: Houston vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 17 at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Houston -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Major Applewhite makes coaching debut for Houston
You may have heard a thing or two recently about the coaching situation at Houston. Tom Herman has departed the program for a chance to be the head coach of the Texas Longhorns, and he is taking a few assistants with him to Austin. Houston initially named defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to be the interim coach for the bowl game, but recently announced it had promoted offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to the position of full-time head coach. That change will be immediate, meaning his head coaching debut will come in the Las Vegas Bowl against a talented San Diego State team.
As Applewhite takes the helm, do not expect too much to change as far as Houston’s offensive identity is concerned. The Cougars should still run the same system under Applewhite, who ran the show as the offensive coordinator under Herman. But with this being Applewhite’s first coaching gig, it will be important to see how he manages the game on the sideline with timeouts, instant replay challenges and other clock management concerns. He also now must make executive decisions with the defense and special teams. And what kind of stamp does Applewhite attempt to leave on the program in game one? Will Houston take a few chances it may not have under Herman? We’ll find out.
2. Donnel Pumphrey gets his curtain call
The nation’s second-leading rusher will play his final college football game. The San Diego State workhorse is one of two running backs to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark this season (2,018 rushing), with only D’Onta Foreman of Texas accumulating more rushing yards on the ground (2,028 in 11 games). Pumphrey is practically guaranteed to finish the season with the most rushing yards this season thanks to playing a full 12-game regular season and getting two more in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game and the Las Vegas Bowl.
Pumphrey’s career at San Diego State has been a landmark one that deserves more attention than it may have received playing out on the west coast in the Mountain West . At least this time he will get some national exposure that is both well-deserved and appropriate as he prepares to take his game to the next level next year.
3. Greg Ward Jr. vs. ball-hawking Aztecs defense
Ward also is playing his final game in a Cougars uniform, bringing an end to his own dynamic career that has played a pivotal role in the rise of the program. Ward will be put to the test against a defense that is known for their ball-hawking abilities. San Diego State leads the nation with 22 interceptions this season, but Ward is known to usually be careful with the football. But when Ward does turn the ball over through the air, he has a tendency to do so in small bunches.
Ward was picked off nine times this season, with multiple interceptions in three separate games. That included two picks in a loss to Navy. Ward has been intercepted just once in the last three games after being picked off three times by UCF on Oct. 29. San Diego State had two interceptions in its Mountain West Conference Championship Game win over Wyoming. The Aztecs have already returned four interceptions for a touchdown this season.
The Las Vegas Bowl has had some good matchups in recent years, and this should be another one not to overlook. This year’s edition may have two of the top Group of Five programs going head-to-head and it offers some of the best players the college football world has to offer in the same game in Greg Ward Jr. and Donnel Pumphrey. The two teams will offer a contrast in offensive styles with San Diego State more likely to keep things on the ground and Houston more likely to open things up through the air.
The Cougars also boast massive freshman Ed Oliver along their defensive front, and the All-American should play a huge role in establishing order in the trenches. Houston may have more talent going into this one, but the Aztecs will not be intimidated and know Houston can be cracked. This one should be darn good.
Prediction: Houston 36, San Diego State 34
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.