Featured graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis
Houston (9-3) vs. San Diego State (10-3)
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada
When: Saturday, December 17 at 3:30 pm on ABC
How they got here:
Houston opened the season as the No. 15 team in the nation. They had a showdown with then-No. 3 Oklahoma at NRG Stadium in Houston. After going into the half up 19-17, the Cougars scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter and took a commanding 33-17 lead into the final 15 minutes. The Cougars only gave up six points in the fourth quarter and had kicked their season off with a big win over a top five opponent. They jumped up to No. 6 in Week 2.
Houston held strong in that slot until a Week 6 upset at the hands of then-unranked Navy. From there, the Cougars eked out a one-score win over Tulsa, suffered a 22-point drubbing by SMU and won a few close games against UCF and Tulane. By Week 11, Houston had dropped out of the AP Poll completely. Its opponent that coming week was then-No. 6 Louisville. At that time Louisville’s only loss on the season was a six-point heartbreaker to Clemson. Houston, at home, took a 31-0 lead into halftime and never looked back. Their season looked to have been turned around, but Houston then found themselves down 34-17 to Memphis at halftime the following week. The game came down to its final few minutes, but Memphis ultimately pulled out a win in the final week of the regular season.
Why they can win:
Houston is just solid on both sides of the ball. They have the 20th-ranked offense and score 38 points per game while only giving up 22.6 points per game on defense, good for 31st out of 128 FBS teams. Being able to play a solid game like that on both sides of the ball is essential in bowl games where you are typically unfamiliar with your opponent. San Diego State stacks up well on both sides of the ball as well, but played one of the easiest schedules in the nation this season on its way to a 10-3 record. The Aztecs’ strength of schedule ranked 93rd out of 128. That is just not very good. If Houston can come out and play even a solid game on both sides of the ball, they should be able to win this one.
Player to watch: QB, Greg Ward
Ward is, quite simply, what makes this team go. He has amassed over 3,000 passing yards this season, coupled with a team-high 518 rushing yards, making him a true dual-threat quarterback. In a one-off game like this, one player can take control and enforce his will on the other team. In this game, that will be Ward. He’s capable of hurting the opposing defense in so many different ways that even if San Diego State spends their whole three-plus weeks off game planning for him — which they will — they still will not be able to stop him. He is that good.
San Diego State Aztecs
How they got here:
The Aztecs had a relatively easy track to their Week 11 matchup with Wyoming. They had a good win over Cal and an inexplicable, 18-point loss to South Alabama. When San Diego State entered Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, they were the favorites. The game ended up being a tightly contested thriller with one of the weirdest endings of the year.
With the score tied at 27 with just over a minute left, quarterback Josh Allen hit CJ Johnson for a 29-yard score. The extra point made it a 34-27 game with 1:07 left. The Aztecs unexplainably could not advance the ball past their own 1-yard line on the ensuing kickoff, leaving them essentially the entire length of the field for a potential game-tying drive. And they almost did it. With just one second left, the Aztecs had moved all the way to Wyoming’s 23-yard line. Quarterback Christian Chapman threw a Hail Mary to the right corner of the end zone. It was incomplete. The fans rushed the field. But then the infamous words “The previous play is under review,” were uttered, the fans returned to the stands and the ruling on the field was overturned — touchdown. But then Rocky Long decided to go for two instead of the tie, a throwback across the field fell incomplete, and the fans rushed the field again as the Aztecs lost 34-33.
Two weeks later, in the Mountain West Conference championship game, San Diego State survived a 14-point fourth quarter from Wyoming to avenge their earlier loss and take the conference title.
Why they can win:
Their 35.8 points per game ranks 28th nationally. Their rushing offense ranks seventh in the nation with 273.3 yards per game and senior running back Donnel Pumphrey needs only 108 yards to become the leading rusher in NCAA history. It will not be an easy task however, as Houston boasts the nation’s 3rd-ranked run defense. That said, this game will be won or lost on the ground for the Aztecs. They just do not have the firepower to move the ball through the air consistently. The good news is if they can consistently move the ball on the ground, they can shorten the game, control time of possession, and limit Greg Ward’s opportunities to hurt them.
Player to watch: Running Back Donnel Pumphrey
Pumphrey’s 2,018 yard season has him second in the nation behind only Texas’ D’Onta Foreman, who has 2,028. Barely even a three-star recruit out of high school, Pumphrey was not exactly the guy one would tab to eventually become the leading rusher in NCAA history. Now, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster is only 108 yards from doing so. If Pumphrey’s offensive line can open up even the smallest hole, he will wiggle his way through it and the last place any linebacker or safety wants to be is one-on-one in space with Donnel Pumphrey — he will put them on SportsCenter. Even if the running game is mitigated to an extent, if it works just enough to open up the play action pass and set up a big play here and there, the Aztecs could win this game.
Edited by Max Marcilla