Can Vanderbilt repeat history with another nine-win season? Will Houston prove that they're for real even without Kevin Sumlin on the sideline? If a non-BCS bowl happens after January 1st, does anyone notice?
Those are the questions that will be answered on Saturday when Vanderbilt and Houston face off in Birmingham with the BBVA Compass Bowl title on the line. Commodore fans may have felt snubbed to fall down the SEC's pecking order when it came to bowls, but their reward is an intriguing matchup against a solid and underrated Cougar squad that won't be afraid to go toe-to-to with a team that has gone 9-7 in league play the last two years.
Houston is driven by a strong team defense that has held foes to just 20.2 points per game in 2013. That could spell trouble for a Vanderbilt squad that has struggled to score this fall. Even worse, the 'Dores will be without starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who had played out the final three games of the regular season on a torn ACL before finally relenting and getting season-ending surgery earlier in December.
However, Vandy will still be in good shape with Patton Robinette behind center. The redshirt freshman was the catalyst behind the team's comeback win over Georgia, and he played a key role in platoon work with Carta-Samuels as the 'Dores rolled through a 4-0 November en route to an 8-4 regular season record. Robinette did most of his work late in the season with his legs, but he also showed off an accurate arm when "ACS" was on the bench resting his bum knee. While his timing was off, the young signal caller grew into the role and stepped up in the face of pressure - no more so than when he scoring the winning touchdown in the final minute of a raucous rivalry game in Knoxville.
He'll be facing off against John O'Korn, a quarterback who got hot midway through the season but cooled off down the stretch. O'Korn had three 300-yard passing games in a four-game stretch through late September and October, but he has been unable to sustain that effort. Against top 25 opponents UCF and Louisville, the freshman combined for just 292 passing yards on a 29-65 performance.
Vanderbilt has the tools to pressure O'Korn into another poor showing. All-SEC defensive backs Kenny Ladler and Andre Hal will be tasked with stopping All-AAC receiver Deontay Greenberry, and a defensive line that has grown leaps and bounds in 2013 will keep the Cougars from getting too comfortable behind the line of scrimmage. Defensively, the pressure will fall upon Vandy's linebacking corps.
That would have been an issue earlier in the season, but the 'Dores will have senior leaders Chase Garnham and Karl Butler at full strength to play field general in Birmingham. They'll pair with breakout sophomore Darreon Herring to provide air and ground support on Saturday. As a unit this defense should be able to threaten the Cougars with their speed and strength in the same way that UCF and Louisville had before them.
This suggests that the BBVA Compass Bowl could be a sloppy affair - but that's the kind of game that Vanderbilt has thrived in. The Commodores have rarely won pretty in 2013, and that may not change even though the calendar has. Two teams with explosive receiving attacks may be relegated to a hard-hitting, low-scoring affair on Saturday. Can Vandy pull out a second-straight bowl win? Let's take a closer look.
Christian D'Andrea: I see a lot of similarities between Houston and Vanderbilt. Both teams have an offense that is predicated on the production of one stellar receiver. Both teams rely on a defense that is strong from top to bottom. However, while the Cougars have acquitted themselves well against high-level competition, they have been unable to notch a marquee win this fall. Houston topped Rice, who went on to become Conference-USA champion, earlier in the season, but they fell agonizingly short against Louisville, UCF, Cincinnati, and BYU by a combined total of 20 points.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has been on the happy side of their close games in 2013. The Commodores beat Wake Forest, Tennessee, and Georgia by 10 total points this year. Their only one-possession loss came in their season opener against Ole Miss - a game in which the teams exchanged miracles as the clock wound down.
That speaks to Vandy's resiliency, even if their close games came against lesser opponents. Vanderbilt seems to save an extra gear for the fourth quarter, where long drives have erased the futility of the conservative play calling that preceded them. Vanderbilt trailed late in the final frame of each of the games I've previously mentioned, only to dig deep and find the right combination of strategy and heart to turn potential defeat into victory. That was the difference that got them to Birmingham, and I don't see that changing now.
James Franklin used his bye weeks to produce wins over Georgia and Florida when his team returned to the field. He'll face a tough Houston team on Saturday, but he and his staff will have their angles covered - especially when the clock winds down. It will be tough, and it will be occasionally ugly, but I think another Commodore rally gives this team their ninth win of the season.
The Pick: Vanderbilt 23, Houston 20.