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Armed Forces Bowl Preview: Houston vs. Pittsburgh

Because who needs a head coach anyway?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: Houston Cougars (7-5, 5-3 American) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers(6-6, 4-4 ACC)

WHEN: 12 PM Eastern

WHERE: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, TX

LINE: Pittsburgh -2.5 (opened -3)

You likely know by now the story that ESPN will likely talk about ad nauseum during the game: Houston unceremoniously dumped Tony Levine and scored a huge hire in Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and Pitt lost Paul Chryst to Wisconsin and hired their own hot commodity in Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

As Pitt's SBNation site Cardiac Hill points out, with all the coaching moves the actual bowl game itself was somewhat dwarfed in terms of national attention. Houston DC David Gibbs will serve as interim head coach for the Cougars and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will take charge of the Panthers. The Armed Forces Bowl may be little more than an exhibition featuring temporary head coaches, but it will feature a couple of strong running backs, and there's also the matter of winning one of the most interesting trophies you'll find during bowl season.

How They Got Here

Houston's lofty preseason expectations and the excitement over the grand opening of TDECU stadium were immediately stunted as a healthy UTSA defense forced a stunning six turnovers and dominated the Cougars on national television. The rest of their season more or less went to script as they beat opponents they should beat (Grambling, Tulsa, SMU, USF, UNLV) and lost to most of the better teams on their schedule (Cincinnati, UCF, BYU when healthy). Two games stand out as surprising results: An upset win over eventual AAC co-champ Memphis and a very bad loss to Tulane.

Unlike UH with their upset of Memphis, Pitt doesn't really have a signature win to their name. Boston College (7-6) is their best win, and a pair of wins over two very down traditional powers in Virginia Tech and Miami aren't exactly inspiring (although they do get the transitive win over Ohio State via Virginia Tech for what that's worth--which isn't much). However, four of their six losses were by five points or less, which means they were likely a few bounces away from looking like a much better team. Their only blowout loss was to a very solid Georgia Tech team, but they do have one absolute stinker of an "L" on their schedule--Akron.

A Look at Houston

Tony Levine attempted to change Houston from their usual Air Raid attack to a more balanced attack (455 rushing attempts to 425 passing attempts), and in year 3 the results were rocky at best as the Coogs finished 83rd in offensive S/P+ and often struggled to finish drives in the red zone. UH was able to move the ball between the 20s as they notched a relatively high 54 red zone trips, but they only converted 74% of those drives into points and 52% of those drives into touchdowns. However, the Cougars offense improved later on in the season as Greg Ward Jr. took the reins at quarterback and provided a dual threat presence that John O'Korn couldn't.

Despite an offense that has at times struggled to score points and often didn't pass the eye test, Houston was able to keep themselves above .500 thanks to an opportunistic defense that played a big role in forcing 30 turnovers (+8 total turnover margin) and held opponents to an average of 19.5 points. David Gibbs has done a solid job rebuilding what was once one of the worst defenses in FBS and has turned his unit into one of the team's strengths.

Special teams have not been so special for the Coogs. The kick and punt return games haven't helped much in winning the field position battle and kicker Kyle Bullard's (16 FGM of 22 FGA) consistency has waned towards the end of the season.

Players to Watch

Houston

  • Kenneth Farrow, Jr. RB - The Cougars' rushing leader is 66 yards away from a 1,000 yard season, but he faces a challenge against a serviceable Pitt rushing defense that has allowed only 156.6 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry.
  • Efrem Oliphant, Sr. LB - The 2nd team all-AAC selection is far and away UH's leading tackler (130) and has been all over the field with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery, and a partridge in a pear tree to his name.

Pitt

  • James Conner, So. RB - Conner's name was lost somewhat in all the discussion about Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah on the national stage but make no mistake, he's among the nation's elite. His numbers are outstanding for a sophomore (1675 yards, 6 YPC, 139.6 YPG, 24 TD) and he'll fearlessly pulverize defenders. He has speed to get away from most defenders as well.
  • Tyler Boyd, So. WR - If Pitt QB Chad Voytik is going to throw the ball, he's going to throw it to Boyd. He's been targeted more times than the next four receivers combined and can pull down spectacular catches in traffic.

Prediction

Houston will be playing a virtual home game in Fort Worth, but will their defense be able to stand up to the elite talents of Conner and Boyd? The Cougars have shut down most of the rushing attacks they've faced this year, but Taysom Hill is the only player in the class of James Conner that UH has faced, and Hill racked up 160 yards and a TD on the Cougars.

On the other side of the ball, Pitt's secondary has been suspect at times this year and could be vulnerable to WR Deontay Greenberry having a big day. However, their front seven may be up to the task of containing Farrow, and Pitt's special teams are better than UH's by virtue of them having a real kick return threat in Boyd.

There's always the possibility that Pitt's gonna Pitt, but it's also hard to bet against Conner and Boyd. Expect a tight game.

Pittsburgh 31, Houston 27