On the surface, this game looks boring. Traditionally, Vanderbilt and Houston don't make a lot of headlines. But dig a little deeper and you will find a very interesting matchup Saturday. The Commodores come into the game at 3-4 off a big win against Missouri and Houston rolls in at 7-0, having hardly been tested this year.
Head coach Derek Mason secured his first SEC win as a head coach last week when Vanderbilt upset Missouri, 10-3. Not surprisingly, it took only one touchdown to win the game. Despite the fact Mizzou is gasping for air, the win brought some much-needed confidence for Vandy. But can the Commodores continue the momentum against a top-25 team?
Houston is unbeaten and its only real test came in week two at Louisville, a 34-31 win. Tulsa gave the Cougars a scare for a little while, but Houston prevailed by two scores in the end. The other five teams on Houston's schedule have been beaten easily and the Cougars' offense is playing superbly.
Vanderbilt and Houston have only met on the field once, back in January 2014 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Commodores prevailed, 41-24, in what turned out to be then-head coach James Franklin's final game at the helm. Unfortunately, this wasn't so long ago that it would be necessary to mention it as an historic event. But hey, it was a time before fresh pizza vending machines.
College Football Podcast: Week 9 Preview Matt Stinchcomb
Vanderbilt at Houston
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Houston -12
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Houston keep up its rampant scoring against a stingy defense?
Most of the talk this week has been about Houston having the best offense Vanderbilt has seen thus far. Indeed, the Cougars are averaging 47.6 points per game and lighting up the scoreboard. Houston is extremely balanced, averaging over 560 yards per game. Those yards are split fairly evenly in passing and rushing. But on the flip side, Vanderbilt probably has the best defense the Cougars have seen this year. The Commodores are allowing only 16.3 points per game and are especially strong in stopping the run. Can Houston move the ball as well as it has in recent weeks?
2. Will Vanderbilt play well enough on offense to keep it close?
While Vandy's defense will likely be able to get some stops, its offense will be the key to whether the game is close. Freshman quarterback Kyle Shurmur played for the first time last week against Mizzou and accounted for only 89 yards on 20 attempts passing. Vanderbilt must throw well enough to open up the running game and allow Ralph Webb to gain yards on the ground. Webb rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown last week against a pretty good front seven. Houston is allowing only 19.7 points per game, but the competition level hasn't been stellar.
3. How does this game affect the perception of the SEC?
The SEC, which dominated college football from 2006-12, has taken some criticism lately for its bowl record and the fact it has missed out on the last two national championships. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) already got a major win over the SEC this season when Memphis beat Ole Miss. While Vanderbilt is not the class of the SEC, it has given Ole Miss and Georgia, two of the SEC's top programs, fits in games this year. If Houston comes out and pummels the Commodores, it will not look good for the conference as a whole.
This is an interesting game because of the matchup between Houston's offense and Vanderbilt's defense. Most are expecting the Cougars to run away with this one, but Vandy has to be more confident after knocking off Mizzou last week. The Commodores' defense is going to be troublesome for Houston's offense at times, but Greg Ward Jr. is a prime threat both through the air and on the ground, giving the Cougars a considerable edge. Defensively, Houston is good enough to shut down Vanderbilt if Webb can't get it going on the ground. That recipe doesn't bode well for Vandy.