This is not the matchup that Houston fans were hoping for halfway through the season, when it had a top-10 ranking, a rising star at coach and an outside shot at being one of the four teams selected for the college football playoffs.
But the Cougars lost three of their final seven games, including a 48-44 defeat at Memphis in their regular-season finale, and accepted a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl to take on Mountain West champion San Diego State. It will do with a new coach Todd Orlando is serving as the interim coach in place of Tom Herman, who left to take the head coach position at Texas. He's also had to readjust staff duties with four assistants leaving along with Herman.
Orlando and Major Applewhite the offensive coordinator will interview for the fulltime coaching duties as well. Both are also candidates for other jobs, so this bowl game will be part of their resumes going forward. Expect both to have their units ready to go to take on the Aztecs.
San Diego State is a challenging opponent. It has an excellent running game, led by running back Donnel Pumphrey. Houston is one of the top run defenses in the country, but it's also struggled against top teams. There's ample film out there for the SDSU staff to study on how to find the cracks in Houston's defensive armor.
However, that cuts both ways. Houston's Ed Oliver is battling injury, but should be ready to go for the Las Vegas Bowl. One of the top freshmen in the country, he and senior linebacker Steven Taylor lead an opportunistic defense that prides itself on getting into the opposing backfield and disrupting the play. The Cougars punish opposing lines for blocking mistakes.
Offensively, this team revolves around quarterback Greg Ward Jr. The winningest quarterback in school history by percentage, he's adept at running with the football, finding the safe and open option on third down, and hitting the deep ball.
The Las Vegas Bowl kicks off on December 17, which has a couple of disadvantages. The early date means that the Cougars won't be able to use all of the practice sessions it's allowed to by the NCAA, limiting the benefit of the extra reps. It also means that the Houston players suffering minor injuries including quarterback Greg Ward Jr. and defensive tackle Ed Oliver won't have as much time to recover.
"My point to Ed Oliver, and even to Greg Ward Jr., is we will monitor their practice reps," Orlando said. "Greg has to make sure he throws the football to keep his rhythm. I told Ed to get better. Get rested and get better because ... I want the 100 percent Ed Oliver. I already know what he can do so there's no need to make him do 1,000 reps before this game. We know what Ed can do. If we manage and rest him correctly, I expect for him to be full throttle come bowl game."