The big 2014 BBVA Compass Bowl breakdown: Cougs could spoil Vandy's makeshift homefield advantage

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

"This is a game changer" has been Vanderbilt's mantra for the last couple of seasons. Can the Commodores continue changing the spectrum in the SEC by finishing off a second-straight nine-win season in the BBVA Compass Bowl? Can a Houston team that is almost certainly better than you think steal a ninth win of its own?

By the time we reach this point in bowl season, we've gotten pretty silly. Bowl results are used as the clearest proof of conference superiority or inferiority, but with 30 of 35 bowls in the books, the results are almost certainly going to be contradictory. Mississippi State killed Rice, Ole Miss beat an evenly matched (on paper) Georgia Tech team, LSU handled Iowa as expected, Missouri slipped past Oklahoma State, and South Carolina beat a favored Wisconsin team. So the SEC is properly rated, right?

But Texas A&M barely beat Duke, Georgia lost to Nebraska, and Alabama lost to Oklahoma! Overrated!

Meanwhile, the American Athletic Conference has been exposed as a total fraud, as expected. Cincinnati got crushed by a 6-6 North Carolina team, Rutgers lost somewhat handily to Notre Dame, and even though Louisville walloped Miami, it doesn't matter because Louisville's leaving.

But … UCF also handled Big 12 champion Baylor with ease. Underrated!

The bowl season's third-to-last contest pits an 8-4 team from the great/overrated SEC against an 8-4 team from the awful/underrated AAC. We will inevitably draw silly conclusions from its result, but on paper, it's a pretty interesting matchup that probably isn't really what you expect to see. Vanderbilt's offense has been a little better than Houston's run-and-gun unit, while Houston has had a demonstrably better defense. It's pretty difficult to get a read on this game even outside of the conference superiority argument.

How they got here

Vandy's season to date

This was basically the typical James Franklin season at Vanderbilt: win a lot of close games, handle a couple of blowouts, and finish in a bowl. After reaching three bowls in 55 years, the Commodores have now been to three in three, and a win over Houston would give them their second nine-win season in both a) the last two years and b) the last 98 years.

This didn't seem likely midway through the year. Vanderbilt gave away a late lead in a 39-35 loss to Ole Miss, got blown out by South Carolina until a late comeback, sleep-walked through an underwhelming win at UMass, and lost by 23 points at home to Missouri. They lost quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels along the way, too.

But they upset Georgia in between blowouts to Mizzou and Texas A&M, and they won their final four games of the season even with a redshirt freshman at quarterback, checking a couple more "First since…" boxes along the way. They won at Florida for the first time since World War II, and they won their second consecutive game over Tennessee for the first time since the 1920s.

Despite beating Georgia head-to-head, and despite finishing with the same record as the Bulldogs, Vandy was passed over for a spot in the Gator Bowl, which would have been the program's first January 1 bowl game. We'll see if that has an impact on the team's play.

It hasn't had an impact on fan support, however; the 'Dores sold out their ticket allotment. There will be a lot of black and gold surrounding Legion Field.

Houston's season to date

Following a frustrating 2012 season that saw Houston lose its head coach (Kevin Sumlin) and record-setting quarterback (Case Keenum) and stumble to 5-7, the Cougars bounced back in 2013, and not in the manner you might expect. The offense improved, sure, but the defense surged. They held nine opponents to 24 points or less -- this after they went 13-1 while allowing 23 or more seven times in 2011 -- and survived life with a true freshman quarterback.

Life was almost a lot better, too. Houston did beat Rice by five points at Reliant Stadium on September 21, but the Cougars lost four games by a touchdown or less -- 47-46 against BYU, 19-14 at Fiesta Bowl champion UCF, 20-13 at Louisville, and 24-17 against Cincinnati. Houston dealt with some pretty poor fumbles luck (UH recovered just 14 of 38 fumbles for the season), and the Cougars were a lot closer to 11-1 than 6-6.

This is a pretty good team, one that, for the season as a whole, was probably better than Vandy's. But Vandy tends to win the close games that Houston lost in 2013; this is an opportunity for the Cougars to both take win number nine even the close-game tables a bit.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Vanderbilt 8-4 NR 53 -2.5 59 63 27
Houston 8-4 NR 42 64 29 37
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Vandy Offense 71 115 106 69 71 56 19
Houston Defense 51 73 41 81 34 20 89
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Vandy Offense 104 91 6 34 100 79 97
Houston Defense 61 57 94 47 64 20 89
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Houston Offense 54 43 42 58 73 54 101
Vandy Defense 47 80 86 34 71 58 119
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Houston Offense 60 15 103 118 56 31 73
Vandy Defense 57 90 90 46 70 78 44
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Vandy Special Teams 65 32 27 17 49 105
Houston Special Teams 6 113 6 43 85 15

Vandy's biggest advantages:

Houston wants to pass, and Vandy's okay with that. Considering youth, quarterback John O'Korn has more than held his own in 2013. The true freshman from Fort Lauderdale has completed 60 percent of his passes with a 26-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio, though as is often the case, the returns diminished as the season unfolded. Over the last four games (including three against the best teams in the AAC), his completion rate dropped from 65 percent to 51 percent, his per-pass average dropped from 8.6 yards to 5.1, and his interception rate rose from 1.6 percent to 2.6 percent.

Some regrouping might be a good thing for O'Korn, especially considering his struggles coincided with a concussion for star receiver Deontay Greenberry, but now they both to face a strong, active Vanderbilt secondary. The Vandy pass rush isn't anything special, but the Commodores are active in the back; nearly half (44 percent) of VU opponents' 149 incomplete passes were defensed (intercepted or broken up), one of the higher rates in the country. You've probably heard of senior corner Andre Hal 914 passes defensed), but sophomore linebacker Darreon Herring was a ball magnet, defensing 11 passes of his own, second-most in the country among linebackers (behind UCLA's Myles Jack). About 41 percent of Houston's incompletions were also defensed, also a pretty high total, so if things start going poorly for O'Korn, they could go very poorly.

Methodical? Vandy can do that. Houston's defense really is an underrated unit overall, but while the Cougars hold advantages on the ground and in preventing explosive drives and plays, they are vulnerable to drawn-out, peck-and-poke drives and short-yardage conversions. Well, that's pretty much what Vandy does well.

Players like receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause and running back Jerron Seymour certainly have big-play potential, but Vandy's primary method of scoring is via the grind. And while Houston has made a decent number of havoc plays -- 72 tackles for loss, 74 passes defensed (41 percent of incompletions), 16 forced fumbles -- the Cougars can still fall victim to waiting a little too long for opposing offenses to make a mistake. Vandy quarterback Patton Robinette is not mistake-free (interception rate: 4.3 percent), but he could generate enough positivity on a few drives to put points on the board.

Houston's biggest advantages:

Vandy wants to run, and Houston's okay with that. Vandy probably doesn't quite run as much as you think -- the Commodores run 61 percent of the time on standard downs (just slightly above the national average) and 37 percent on passing downs (41st in the country) -- but it's still a pretty key piece of the game plan. And the 'Dores really aren't very good at it in 2013. Seymour, Wesley Tate, and Brian Kimbrow combine to average just 4.2 yards per carry over 25 carries per game, and Houston has been very good at preventing open-field opportunities for opposing running backs. Junior Efrem Oliphant is one of the best linebackers in the country against the run and has logged 9.5 non-sack tackles for loss. Tackle Jeremiah Farley has six, and middle linebacker Derrick Matthews has five.

The Vandy offensive line has struggled to gain traction at times, and Houston might be capable of shutting down the run game. The Commodores probably aren't going to have to score 40 points to win this game, but if made one-dimensional, it's hard to see them scoring more than about 21.

Field position advantage: Cougs. Houston forces three-and-outs and avoids them reasonably well (better than opponents, anyway), punter and kickoffs guy Richie Leone is one of college football's best (49 percent of his kickoffs are touchbacks, 46 percent of his punts are fair caught, and he has 33 punts downed inside the 20 to just three touchbacks), and kick returner Demarcus Ayers is a terror. That is a lovely combination for field position domination. If Houston can stuff the Vandy run game and do just well enough on offense to flip the field a bit, the Cougars can tilt the field drastically in their favor, especially considering Vandy's own return game deficiencies. Tilt the field and give Patton Robinette some second- and third-and-longs, and you are putting him under serious pressure.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Between a complete retooling of the secondary, which has four senior starters, and the loss of Jordan Matthews on offense, it's safe to say that Vandy is not going to be getting a lot of preseason hype in 2014, win or lose on Saturday. That probably won't stop the 'Dores from going 8-4 again, however. Line play should improve with quite a bit of experience, the running game (and run defense) should improve as a result, and if he can hold onto the job Robinette will enter 2014 with more experience than he expected to get this season.

Meanwhile, Houston becomes a wonderfully intriguing team in 2014, especially if the Cougars can take down the Commodores. They could very well get talked up as an AAC contender with eight projected returning starters on offense and nine on defense. We saw a youth movement at UH this year, with players like O'Korn, Greenberry (sophomore), running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson (sophomores), and linebackers Oliphant and Mathews (juniors) taking charge this year, and only the secondary will need any serious retooling. Houston will be pretty good in 2014 regardless, but the BBVA Compass Bowl could be a nice announcement in that regard.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Houston 27, Vandy 23
Win Probability: Houston 64%

It's not hard to see what the numbers see in this one. Houston stops the run well and tilts the field in its favor; these are very good things against a Vandy team that could be severely handicapped if it can't run and faces long fields. But it's hard to miss that Houston might not have an answer for the things most important to Vandy's identity -- active pass defense, strong short-yardage conversions on offense; it's also hard not to miss that, in close games, Vandy has been mostly good and Houston has been mostly iffy.

In all, Vanderbilt has the experience advantage in this one, and that could quite possibly pay off. But for those expecting Vandy to triumph simply because SEC! SEC! SEC!, that might be a mistake. Houston is solid and will likely be even more solid moving forward.

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