Vanderbilt’s season started off rather modestly, getting out to just a 3-3 record in the first six games, but the squad caught fire down the stretch with wins in five of its last six, including four in a row to close out the regular season. The Commodores have now earned a bowl bid in each of head coach James Franklin’s first three seasons at the helm. The program had qualified for just four bowl games in its history prior to 2011.
“We are fired up to be in Birmingham,” Franklin said. “We couldn’t be more excited about being here.”
After missing out on bowl season in 2012, Houston bounced back nicely in 2013 with an 8-4 record, including a 5-3 mark in the American Athletic Conference, to qualify for postseason play for the eighth time in the past 11 years.
The Cougars hit a slide late in the season by losing three straight games, but they rebounded nicely by blanking SMU on their home field, 34-0.
“We are very excited about our bowl game for a number of reasons,” Houston coach Tony Levine said. “To play in a January bowl game is certainly an honor. It will be fun for us to go against Vanderbilt. (We have) great respect for them, the job they’ve done and are doing, especially as a member of the Southeastern Conference.”
Although Vanderbilt ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in both scoring offense (29.2 ppg) and total offense (366.7 ypg), it still produce one of the best single-season outputs in school history. The unit tapered off down the stretch, however, scoring an average of just 19.7 points over the last three games.
The offense revolves around First Team All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews, who hauled in 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. With an outstanding senior season, Matthews became the league’s all-time leader in both receptions (257) and receiving yards (3,616).
Austyn Carta-Samuels (.687, 2,268 yards, 11 TDs, nine INTs) was responsible for getting the ball to Matthews this season, but he will miss this matchup with a knee injury. Patton Robinette will get the nod instead, and he completed 58 percent of his passes for 488 yards and eight touchdowns (six rushing) in limited action this season.
The modest rushing attack is paced by Jerron Seymour, who gained 627 yards on 144 carries with a real nose for the end zone, crossing the plane 13 times.
Defensively, the Commodores allow 24.7 ppg and 352.3 ypg while generating 26 turnovers. The unit played its best ball over the final three games of the season, holding Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest to a combined 37 points (12.3 ppg).
Kenny Ladler (87 tackles, five INTs, five FF) and Andre Hal (40 tackles, two INTs) were both selected to the All-SEC Second Team, but Hal is listed as questionable for this contest with an undisclosed injury. Walker May (8.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks), Kyle Woestmann (6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and Caleb Azubike (9.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) are all solid performers along the Vandy defensive line.
Houston enjoyed plenty of offensive success this season, averaging 33.9 ppg (second in AAC) on 422.5 ypg.
John O’Korn proved to be one of the nation’s top freshman signal callers, completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 2,889 yards with 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
A large chunk of O’Korn’s success can be attributed to the chemistry he formed with Deontay Greenberry, who was named a First Team All-AAC honoree after tallying 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. The sophomore is battling a leg injury, but he is listed as probable. Daniel Spencer (50 receptions, 764 yards, six TDs) has proven himself to be a reliable target as well.
Although the Cougars called nearly as many run plays (408) as pass plays (469), they didn’t have anywhere near the same level of success (138.4 rushing ypg). Ryan Jackson (655 yards, six TDs) and Kenneth Farrow (486 yards, five TDs) split the bulk of the carries to moderate success.
Just as important to Houston’s overall performance was the play of its defense, which ranked fourth in the AAC in allowing just 20.2 ppg. The unit was the most opportunistic in the country with 40 takeaways, which was five more than second-place Tulane.
Efrem Oliphant (123 tackles, 12.5 TFL), Derrick Mathews (110 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks) and Trevon Stewart (99 tackles) each racked up the stops, while Stewart was also a difference-making presence in the turnover battle with four interceptions, two forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. Adrian McDonald (five INTs, FR), Zach McMillian (four INTs, FF) and Thomas Bates (two INTs, two FF) are also integral pieces to the defensive puzzle for Houston.