You know Christmas is right around the corner because the NCAA bowl season gets underway this Saturday with five games. The one featuring the two best teams on paper is the Las Vegas Bowl between Houston and San Diego State, two schools ranked at one point during the regular season. Bet on all 40 bowl games on Sports Interaction college football odds. For more details on every Bowl game, check out our full schedule of the 2016-17 College Bowl games, complete with moneyline odds, point spreads and betting trends for each game.
Houston Cougars vs. San Diego State Aztecs
Point spread: Cougars -3.5
Date: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
The American Athletic Conference’s Cougars (9-3) were the Group of Five darlings for about the first third of the season. Under Coach Tom Herman, the Cougars jumped right into the early College Football Playoff picture with a Week 1 dismantling of then-No. 3 Oklahoma. Houston was unbeaten and ranked sixth in the country when it went to Navy on Oct. 8 and was upset.
Another loss on Oct. 22 at SMU ended any shot of a major bowl bid or even a conference title. Yet it sure seemed like this team played its best against the top opponents because on Nov. 17, fifth-ranked Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson visited Houston in a non-conference game. The Cougars ended the Cardinals’ playoff hopes with a 36-10 blowout and Jackson had his worst game of the season with just one total touchdown and only 33 yards rushing on 25 carries as he was sacked a whopping 11 times.
Houston then closed its season with a 48-44 shootout loss at AAC rival Memphis. You can excuse the UH players if they were distracted in that one as rumours were flying that Herman was about to leave. And that would be his last game in charge, bolting for Texas. The school settled on offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, a legend in Texas football from his Longhorns days, to replace Herman full time.
Keep an eye on QB Greg Ward Jr. in his final college game. He’s a dual-threat like Jackson, throwing for 3,328 yards and 22 touchdowns this year while rushing for 518 yards and nine scores. UH also has a future NFL first-round pick and one of the best young defensive players in the nation in freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a five-star recruit lured by Herman. Oliver was named first-team All-American with 61 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
It’s the fourth straight bowl game for Houston, which upset No. 9 Florida State 38-24 in last season’s Peach Bowl. Ward was the offensive MVP, throwing for two scores and running for one.
San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs (10-3) were ranked as high as 19th early in the season before an upset loss at South Alabama on Oct. 1. SDSU got itself back into the conversation for a potential New Year’s Six bowl as the top Group of Five school with six straight wins. But it lost its final two regular-season games at Wyoming and a home blowout to Colorado State before playing at Wyoming again in the Mountain West Championship Game and beating the Cowboys 27-24.
If asked who the nation’s top running back was this year, you might answer someone like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook or Texas’ D’Onta Foreman. All great players, but they have nothing on San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, who finished 10th in the Heisman voting. Pumphrey, the first Aztec to win two league offensive player of the year awards in program history, had a school-record 2,018 rushing yards (just 10 behind Foreman for the NCAA lead) and 16 touchdowns this year while also leading the team with 26 catches.
Pumphrey is one of four FBS players to lead his team in rushing yards and receptions, and his numbers would have been that much bigger if he wasn’t pulled often in the fourth quarter of blowouts. Pumphrey’s 6,290 career rushing yards are the second-most in FBS history. Former Heisman winner Ron Dayne finished with 6,397 at Wisconsin, so Pumphrey needs just 108 vs. Houston to break the record. Because the Aztecs have such a workhorse in Pumphrey, they don’t throw the ball much, attempting 242 passes all season. A team like Texas Tech can throw that often in a month.
San Diego State is looking to tie the school record for wins. It’s the program’s seventh straight bowl appearance, and SDSU beat Cincinnati (a conference foe of Houston’s) 42-7 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl.
Las Vegas Bowl Prediction
These two schools haven’t played since 1973. I believe Houston is the better team — and certainly played a tougher schedule — if properly motivated. Losing Herman has to sting, but that Applewhite surprisingly got the job thrilled the players. Thus they should play hard for him. Take UH minus the points and go over the total.