Vanderbilt (8-4) vs. Houston (8-4)
Jan. 4, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: A pair of high-profile receivers face off in Birmingham. Jordan Matthews, the headliner of the Commodores' stable of pass-catchers, set a team single-season record with 1,334 receiving yards in 2013. He may have fielded only one scholarship out of high school, but he is now the SEC’s career leader in catches (257) and receiving yards (3,616). The Cougars’ Deontay Greenberry, meanwhile, had a big year of his own with 76 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in an offense that averages more than 280 yards through the air. This game should feature plenty of passing with weapons like those on the edge.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin remains a hot name in connection with a number of other jobs. He hasn’t addressed other opportunities in detail, but he’s been open about his frustration with slumping season-ticket sales among Commodores fans despite a resurgent program. Could this be the last game Franklin coaches for the team he helped revive?
• Keep an eye on: Vanderbilt QB Patton Robinette. The redshirt freshman signal-caller started in place of the injured Austyn Carta-Samuels for two games this season and completed 40-of-69 passes for 488 yards and two touchdowns to go along with six rushing scores. Carta-Samuels underwent knee surgery once the regular season ended, so that means Robinette will lead the Commodores in the bowl game. He will be facing a Houston defense that ranks first in the country in turnovers (40) and turnover margin (plus-25). That’s a lot to ask from a freshman. Vandy's offense might need to lean on tailbacks Jerron Seymour and Wes Tate a bit more than usual if the Cougars’ pass rush flusters Robinette into some early mistakes.
• Did you know? Coming off a second straight nine-win season, Vanderbilt is playing in a third consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history.
• Final analysis: Houston was more successful at quarterback this fall with freshman John O’Korn (2,889 passing yards, 26 touchdowns), who’s found some nice chemistry with Greenberry in the passing game. The Cougars’ four losses were each by seven points or fewer. But the Commodores’ defense, led by All-SEC defensive backs Kenny Ladler and Andre Hal, should challenge the Houston offense. If the defense stays focused and Matthews gets going, Vandy should roll. • The pick: Vanderbilt 27, Houston 17