Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4) vs. Houston Cougars (8-4)
Jan. 4, 1 p.m. ET, Birmingham, Ala. (ESPN)
VANDERBILT COMMODORES BREAKDOWN
Coach James Franklin has turned his revival of the Vanderbilt program into a new golden age. These are heady times for the Commodores. Vandy recently completed yet another unbeaten November, giving it a nine-game winning streak in that critical month that dates to 2011.
Vanderbilt defeated Georgia and Florida for the first time in the same season, picking up the school's first road win against the Gators since 1945. VU's only SEC East losses were to the top two teams -- South Carolina and Missouri.
Despite a nail-biting loss in the season opener against Ole Miss and a big road loss to Texas A&M, the Dores won eight games and went .500 in the SEC. VU has eight wins in back-to-back regular seasons for the first time since 1927-28 and is making its third straight bowl appearance. Here's some perspective: Before Franklin arrived, Vanderbilt had been to four bowl games in 120 years.
The Commodores have a balanced offense that features the passing combination of quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. But this year has seen more emphasis on running the ball, as Vandy employs a committee that includes leading rusher Jerron Seymour, Brian Kimbrow, Wesley Tate and lately more designed runs for Carta-Samuels and backup QB Patton Robinette. The biggest star and most dangerous player, however, is the silky-smooth Matthews, who has an SEC-record 18 career 100-yard games and broke his own school record this season with 1,334 yards receiving (fifth most in SEC history).
Perhaps the biggest strides the program has made this season have been on the other side of the ball, where Vanderbilt has allowed 333.9 yards a game to rank No. 19 in the nation in total defense. This is an opportunistic bunch with 26 takeaways. On the whole, Franklin runs a tight ship. His offense doesn't give up the ball very often (20 turnovers on the year) and averages just more than five penalties a game.
In other words, Vanderbilt rarely beats itself. -- Jeff Barlis
HOUSTON COUGARS BREAKDOWN
The Cougars have quietly had a nice turnaround season, sitting at 8-4 in coach Tony Levine's second season after a 5-7 campaign in 2012.
Houston has improved in a number of areas, especially on defense. It leads the country in turnover margin (+25) and takeaways (40) under defensive coordinator David Gibbs.
Each of the Cougars’ four losses have come by seven points or fewer -- not bad for a team with a true freshman quarterback (John O'Korn).
While he’s had some growing pains, O'Korn has been solid (26 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and he has many weapons at his disposal, namely sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry (76 receptions, 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns).
One note: Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham has accepted the same job at TCU so co-OC Travis Bush will call the plays in the bowl game. -- Sam Khan Jr.