Houston Cougars vs. San Diego State Aztecs, Saturday Dec. 17, 3:30 p.m. ET
I like the major bowls as much as the next guy, and there is nothing better than hunkering down on New Year 's Day (or whatever day it is this year) and watching them in bulk. What I love almost as much as that, though, are the bowls that are sneaky good. The Las Vegas Bowl, for example, is just way too good to be played on the first day of bowl action. These teams both have warts, but they are very talented and entertaining squads, and this is a gem. It deserves a better fate. As a viewer, though, it is a major plus - a great game early in bowl season feels so much more satisfying than one later on.
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Las Vegas Bowl Betting Storylines
Houston has had no share of drama leading into this game. Since the regular season ended they have had three different head coaches tabbed to lead the team into this game. First it was head coach Tom Herman. But then he took the Texas job - to the surprise of no one - and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was named interim coach for the bowl game. He wanted the full-time job, too, but lost out to Major Applewhite, the former Texas QB and current Houston offensive coordinator. Applewhite is already on staff, so he has taken over his new role immediately. That moves Orlando back to DC for this game, but he will almost certainly leave after the game - most likely to Texas to work under Tom Herman again.
The obvious problem the Cougars have is consistency. They looked incredibly good beating both Houston and Louisville. The team that won those games is good enough to contend with anyone and could easily have been a playoff team. The problem is, though, that this is also the team that lost to Navy. And got crushed by SMU. And lost to Memphis - though that was in the midst of all the Herman speculation, so they had an excuse. They only got up for big games, and it remains to be seen if, given all they have gone through lately, a Dec. 17 bowl game against the Mountain West champion is enough to bring out their A Game.
San Diego State won the Mountain West for the second straight year - and won 10 games in the process. They lost their last two regular-season games, so momentum wasn't going their way. They avenged one of those losses, though, by beating a solid Wyoming team in the MWC Championship Game. The biggest knock against them, though, is that they haven't really played anyone - their closest thing to a statement win was against Cal early on, and they managed to avoid Boise State in conference play. They have, in other words, been decent against very underwhelming opposition.
We don't need to be all negative about San Diego State, though. They do have one spectacular weapon for this fight. Donnel Pumphrey, a senior who will be playing his last collegiate game in his hometown, rushed for 2,018 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's not a lone wolf in this backfield, either - Rashaad Penny rushed for 995 yards and 11 scores, and Juwan Washington added 443 yards and five TDs. Add it all up and you have a Top 10 national rushing attack. Houston is third nationally against the run, allowing just 97.9 yards per game, so you have a strength-on-strength situation that will all but certainly define how the game turns out.
Las Vegas Bowl Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Houston favored by the key number of three, and that has since crept up by a hook to 3.5. About two-thirds of bets have come in on Houston so far, so the movement isn't surprising. Barring a major development we shouldn't see really dramatic further movement. The total opened at 57.5 and is inching downwards - it sits now at 54.5.
The Cougars are 16-5 ATS in their last 21 nonconference games and 8-2 ATS in their last 10 neutral-site games. They are, however, just 1-4 ATS in their last five against teams with winning records and just 1-6 ATS in their last seven overall. The Aztecs are 2-9-1 ATS in their last 12 nonconference games, they haven't covered their last four against teams with winning records, and they are 2-6 ATS in their last eight in December.
Houston vs. San Diego State Las Vegas Bowl Expert Picks & Predictions
When Herman left I was poised to take a leap with the Aztecs here - especially if the rumors had been true and Houston had hired Lane Kiffin. They made absolutely the right choice in Applewhite, though, and his presence for this game is big. Ultimately, it comes down to two things - Houston has been tested against much better competition and looked good doing it, and the AAC is a better conference than the Mountain West right now. There really isn't much of a debate in my eyes at this price - take Houston.
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