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Las Vegas Bowl Preview: Houston at San Diego State Pick

San Diego State Aztecs(10-3) @ Houston Cougars(9-3)

  • Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (Neutral Site). Las Vegas, NV
  • When: December 17, 2016 3:30 pm EST
  • Spread: San Diego State (+4) at Houston (-4)
  • Moneyline: San Diego State (+155) at Houston (-175)
  • Over / Under: Over 52.5 (-110) vs. Under 52.5 (-110)

Nothing derails a season quite like a head coach leaving for greener pastures.

Tom Herman, whose Houston Cougars kicked off 2016-17 with a stunning blow-out upset of Oklahoma, began getting under-the-table interest from Power-5 programs early in the season. An October loss to Navy knocked the team out of the unbeaten ranks, out of the Top 10, and quieted the speculation.

But wise reporters knew better. “Every team that fired their head coach has to hire somebody,” said Michael Wilbon on ESPN. “Who are they gonna hire, only undefeated coaches?”

Distracted while competing in an excellent conference, Houston finished the year in wild fashion – losing to Southern Methodist, bludgeoning Louisville’s hopes of a CFP bid on national TV, and finally tripping over Memphis in a flat season-ending performance as rumors about their head coach swirled. Herman flatly denied the reports before the game, and angrily rebuked reporters for asking the question. Then he signed with the University of Texas and bolted campus before bowl season. Of course.

Major Applewhite, a huge name in the state, takes over as a respected-yet-unproven skipper for the Cougars as the Las Vegas Bowl looms. The challenge for bettors is to predict whether the squad will play another listless game, bothered by the all-too-typical coaching saga – or come out refreshed and ready to rock in Applewhite’s 1st outing in charge of the team.

The Aztecs, a slight money line underdog on Saturday, were nearly also a study in disappointment after finishing the regular season with 2 straight losses – a poor performance vs. CSU following a wild 34-33 defeat at Wyoming in which SDSU missed a 2-point conversion to win.

Even while falling 63-31 to Colorado State, the team knew it would likely see Wyoming again in the MWC Championship on December 3rd. The hardest thing to do in football is beat a good team you’ve already licked once, and the Cowboys couldn’t pull it off. Rashaad Penny rushed for 117 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Aztecs won 27-24 to claim a conference title.

But thanks to Western Michigan’s unbeaten record in 2016, the automatic Group-of-5 bid to a New Year’s Six bowl went to the Broncos, not Mountain West champ San Diego State. That leaves the squad hungry for respect and a talented bowl opponent against whom to prove itself. Careful what you wish for – Houston has talent in spades.

UH is only a (-175) ML favorite at Bovada, leaving a value bet opportunity on Houston to win.

Houston – Still No Slouch

Bet on the Cougars vs. AztecsLost in the circus of fan reaction to disappointing losses and head-coach treachery, the point must be made that the Cougars are still a world-class college football team. In fact, Houston’s quick fall from a top ranking has more to do with its exceptionally strong conference (the American Athletic) laden with underrated teams like Temple (who nearly knocked off Penn State early in the year), Navy, and Tulsa.

Oklahoma won the Big 12. Houston clobbered them 33-23 to begin the season. Louisville was considered a dark-horse CFP contender. The Cougars absolutely destroyed them on November 17th, 36-10.

Senior QB Greg Ward Jr. is still a swift dual-threat QB who can break any game wide open. In the 48-44 loss to Memphis, Ward hit on 47 completions for 487 yards and 4 touchdowns, while adding 67 yards on the ground. True freshman Ed Oliver anchors the defensive line and has 19 tackles-for-loss on the year.

Bettors were skeptical of an O/U which opened at 60 points and has now shrank by over a touchdown. If SDSU does not seem prepared to handle Ward’s potent mix of read-option runs and accurate throws on Houston’s 1st possession, consider an in-play of 1 or 2 units on the over. The Aztecs are sure to score a few points, while the Cougars can put up 45+ on anyone.

San Diego State – Hungry for Respect

The Aztecs’ chances for an upset will hinge on senior RB Donnel Pumphrey, who rushed for 281 yards against Cal in a 9.7-yards-per-carry performance that inspired dark-horse Heisman chatter. The upperclassman has rushed for around 2000 yards on the season.

But the team is hampered with numerous suspensions and injuries on defense, missing CBs Derek Babiash and Billy Vaughn Jr. to disciplinary action. Houston’s hell-for-leather spread offense will test the depth of the SDSU secondary, which again could affect the O/U result. Meanwhile the Cougars’ physical DL should cause issues for the Mountain West champs when blocking for their star tailback.

Cougars vs. Aztecs money line predictions – 2016 Las Vegas Bowl

Pundits and bettors are expecting a tight contest, with an unmotivated Houston squad phoning it in after coming so tantalizingly close to a major bowl bid.

That analysis overlooks several factors – Ward’s legitimacy as a great college QB playing his final game as a student-athlete among them. The AAC is a stronger conference than the Mountain West in 2016-17 and probably will be in years to come. Major Applewhite is not an ordinary head coaching hire and brings a fresh motivational style to Space City.

Finally, Vegas may seem like a virtual “home game” for a California-based program like SDSU. But the weather is also sure to be calm, with a temperature forecast above freezing. That will benefit the prolific passing game of Houston more than the ground game of the Aztecs.

Bet on the Houston Cougars to win the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl at the Bovada Sportsbook. The Cougars will assert their superiority over 4 quarters and Ward will go out with a victory.

Kurt BoyerThis article was written by Kurt Boyer

A freelance sportswriter from Missouri, Kurt has covered court, gridiron, rink and ring for 10+ years. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.

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