- Time and date: Friday, December 23 at 3 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. CT
- Network: ESPN
- Location: Independence Stadium — Shreveport, LA
- Spread: Houston (-7), per DraftKings
- Over/under: 57, per DraftKings
- Houston money line: -260, per DraftKings
- Louisiana money line: +220, per DraftKings
- All-time series: Houston leads, 6-3
- Last meeting: Louisiana 31, Houston 28 — October 7, 2006
- Current streak: Louisiana, 1 (2006)
- Houston last bowl: 2021 Birmingham Bowl, 17-13 win over Auburn
- Louisiana last bowl: 2021 New Orleans Bowl, 36-21 win over Marshall
- 2021 Independence Bowl matchup: UAB 31, BYU 28
* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
Setting the scene
It’s the end of an era for Houston in a multitude of ways. For one, Friday will mark the final time the Cougars wear American Athletic Conference logos and branding before their upcoming transition to the Big 12. Additionally, the Independence Bowl will serve as the backdrop to the final collegiate outing for Cougar stars Clayton Tune and Tank Dell. The duo led Houston to a crunch-time win over Auburn last December to usher in the first bowl win of the Dana Holgorsen era, and they can string together back-to-back bowl wins with a storybook sendoff in Shreveport.
On the other side lines up Louisiana, which partakes in an in-state bowl game slightly over 200 miles northwest of campus. The Ragin’ Cajuns switched coaches from Billy Napier to Michael Desormeaux, yet the winning tradition continues in Lafeyette. When Louisiana kicks off Friday, it will set a new program record by participating in its fifth-consecutive bowl. Last December, Desormeaux led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a New Orleans Bowl triumph in his first-ever game at the helm, and now, he can anchor his squad to its fourth-straight bowl win and leave 2022 on a high note.
Houston Cougars outlook
The Houston Cougars (7-5, 5-3 AAC) took a step back in the standings after racking up a 12-win campaign a year ago. Injuries and nail-biter finishes contributed to the higher population in the loss column, but it’s clear this Houston team remains stocked with talent. The program secured five First Team All-AAC selections, including both components of the iconic quarterback-wide receiver duo of Clayton Tune and Nathaniel “Tank” Dell.
Tune, who took over as the full-time starter in 2019, exhausts his eligibility following the Independence Bowl. Dell, an All-American honoree, declared for the NFL Draft and will conclude a historic Houston career Friday in Shreveport. The Tune-Dell combo has defined Houston’s high-powered offense over the last several seasons, and the pairing looks to excel on the gridiron in their final time donning red and white together.
Tune enters the contest tied atop the leaderboard for passing touchdowns with 37. There has been no shortage of eye-opening numbers from this year from the senior, who surpassed the 360-yard passing mark in five of his last seven contests. Over that 7-game stretch, Tune tallied three or more touchdown passes in all but one game — most notably making headlines for a 527-yard, 7-touchdown explosion against SMU. With 235 passing yards on Louisiana’s defense, he can leave the college level with 12,000 career yards under his belt — an accomplishment only two active quarterbacks can claim.
Dell is similarly tied for the nation’s lead in the receiving touchdowns category with 15 on the year. The electrifying receiver ranks third in the FBS in the receptions department and sits seven yards away from the current national leader. As suggested by his statistical ranks, Dell has enjoyed an all-around dominant 2022 campaign. The 5’10”, 165 pound receiver shreds man coverage with consistency, gaining separation with ease on short routes and long patterns alike. Three of Dell’s last four showings exhibited at least 160 receiving yards and the All-AAC slot receiver rides a 9-game streak of securing at least one receiving touchdown.
The final iteration of Tune-Dell connection is the main focal point, but Houston’s offense features plenty of other talent to keep an eye on. True freshman wide receiver Matthew Golden appears to be the successor to Dell’s stardom for the program. Golden has five receiving touchdowns in his last four games, eclipsing the century mark for the first two times in his blossoming college career over that span. The Houston native is a bona fide deep threat as demonstrated by his 15.8 yards per reception this year. Golden’s emergence is key as Houston will operate without several key receivers including Sam Brown and Joseph Manjack IV. Outside of Dell and Golden, the majority of Tune’s passes should land in the direction of wide receiver KeSean Carter or tight end Christian Trahan.
Injuries have depleted the Houston running back room throughout the year to the point where Tune is tied for the team-lead in rushing with 489 yards. Tune’s mobility is essential because teams often drop seven or eight against the Cougars’ sixth-ranked passing offense, and the quarterback is adept at taking the yards the defense permits. But on designed runs, Brandon Campbell and Stacy Sneed should split carries to propel the rushing attack. Campbell was relied upon as the lead back for the first half of the season, while Sneed emerged with multiple 100-yard performances in late October and early November. The duo of redshirt freshmen is expected to give its best punch against a stout Louisiana front which surrenders just 142 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, Houston hasn’t matched the efficiency it displays on the offensive end, but the Cougars certainly have shown the potential to dominate. That domination was witnessed in a 42-3 win over a potent East Carolina offense in the penultimate week of the regular season. But on the flip side, Houston’s defense allowed SMU to obtain 77 points in an early-November meeting, when its sixth-to-last ranked passing defense showed major signs of concern. So, the level of execution certainly varies within this unit.
In the heart of the defense resides team captain Donavan Mutin, who serves as the team-lead in tackles with 79. Mutin will be called upon as the chief run-stopper to counter the Ragin’ Cajuns from feasting on the ground. Containing the run game has been more of a strength than weakness for Houston throughout the season, as the Cougars complement Mutin with one of the stronger defensive lines in the AAC.
Houston’s defensive line, which is defined by the moniker “Sack Ave.” heads to Shreveport collecting 2.5 sacks per game. D’Anthony Jones is the driving force behind Sack Ave. with a Cougar-best 7.0 sacks on the season, but the contributions of nose guard Chidozie Nwankwo in the middle cannot be understated. Nwankwo’s ability to occupy multiple linemen has freed up rushing lanes for aggressive defensive ends like Jones, as well as other viable pass rushers like Nelson Ceaser.
The secondary is the x-factor unit for Houston in its 2022 finale. Cornerback Jayce Rogers, who also excels as one of the nation’s elite return specialists, suits up for his final college matchup before testing the waters of the NFL Draft. Rogers captured two of Houston’s seven interceptions this year, and he’ll look to improve upon that low takeaway number against a Louisiana team that only tossed nine picks in the regular season. Luck is often involved in forcing turnovers, so Houston must aim for the more reliable method of generating stops through coverage. Cornerback Art Green (seven pass breakups) and free safety Gervarrius Owens (eight pass breakups) will be especially pertinent in this facet of the game — the key to Houston emerging triumphant at the Independence Bowl.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns outlook
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (6-6, 4-4 Sun Belt) managed to extend their bowl streak to a program-best five games in the midst of a rebuilding year. First-year head coach Michael Desormeaux led the team back to the postseason with two dominant wins in his final three contests. Remaining within state boundaries for the postseason, the Ragin’ Cajuns can claim bowl hardware for the fourth year in a row should they pull off the upset over the Cougars.
Louisiana’s offense operates under the direction of redshirt sophomore quarterback Chandler Fields, who served as the starter for the first several weeks of the season. Fields fills the void caused by a season-ending injury on Nov. 11 to Fresno State transfer Ben Wooldridge, who took over as the No. 1 QB midseason and finished with 15 touchdown passes to only five interceptions. Fields stepped in and won the regular season finale to clinch bowl eligibility by firing for 187 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in a four-touchdown win over Texas State.
Fields isn’t often called upon to dice defenses with 200-yard outings through the air. Rather, Louisiana maintains its ground-oriented identity from the Napier era. The Ragin’ Cajuns typically play a hand of three cards in the backfield — Chris Smith, Terrence Williams, and Dre’lyn Washington. Williams missed the regular season finale and is questionable for the Independence Bowl after producing 365 rushing yards on the year. Smith is a notable speedster, as demonstrated by his more-than-capable kick return ability, and he’ll handle the bulk of the carries, while Washington gives versatility to Louisiana’s ground game by thriving as a 225 pound downhill runner.
The receiving corps will be shorthanded in Shreveport. Michael Jefferson opted out of the season after attaining 51 receptions, 810 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns. The numbers of the next closest Ragin’ Cajun in each category significantly pale in comparison to those of Jefferson — 22 receptions, 277 yards, and three touchdowns. Still, Louisiana trots out a horde of weapons with substantial experience in the receiving game as nine players on the roster have between 11 and 22 receptions in 2022, with yardage outputs ranging from 112 to 277. Look for short-yardage threat Neal Johnson and deep target John Stephens Jr. to pick up the slack in Jefferson’s absence.
Jefferson isn’t the only Ragin’ Cajun skipping the remainder of the season with sights set on the 2023 NFL Draft. Outside linebacker Andre Jones is also absent from the playing field Friday, and the lack of his presence will be a major hit to Louisiana’s pass rush. Louisiana racked up 2.25 sacks per game in the regular season with Jones leading the charge with 7.5 on the year. But as long as defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill-Green in the lineup, Louisiana remains capable of wreaking havoc in Houston’s backfield. Hill-Green’s season résumé features 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks, and he’s within striking distance of becoming the program’s standalone sack leader in his final collegiate game.
Jourdon Quibodeaux leads a respectable Louisiana run defense which ranks 49th in the FBS in fewest yards allowed per game. Quibodeaux was a Second Team All-Sun Belt selection as the only Ragin’ Cajun to exceed 100 tackles. The senior inside linebacker will be essential in shutting down the Cougar rushing attack and forcing Dana Holgorsen’s squad to become one-dimensional.
However, Houston’s offensive MO lies within its passing game. Clayton Tune ended the regular season on a 4-game streak of dropping back to throw at least 40 times. Thus, Louisiana’s secondary will be the main position group determinant in the result of this contest. The defensive back room consists of one of the best cornerbacks in the Sun Belt in Eric Garror, who should draw the daunting assignment of stifling Tank Dell. But using one man to shield the All-AAC wideout is not the ideal strategy, so First Team All-Sun Belt free safety Bralen Trahan should lend a hand in zone coverage. Trahan was a machine in the turnover battle all year long, corralling four interceptions and recovering a fumble to provide Louisiana a commendable turnover margin of +7.
While Houston may not have earned the AAC title or New Year’s Six appearance it hoped for this season, this Cougars team has plenty of talent, and that talent strives to make a statement in Shreveport. Tank Dell and Jayce Rogers declared for the NFL Draft, but the star receiver and playmaking nickelback have unfinished business in Houston’s final game as an AAC member. The Cougars have lit up opposing secondaries with ease over the second half of the season, and Clayton Tune should end his stellar college career with a sendoff performance similar to the showings he had in November.
Louisiana should be able to post points on the Houston defense, as the Cougars surrendered 33.5 per game this year. But combine Houston’s offensive firepower with the fact that Louisiana is deprived of its starting quarterback, top receiver, and top pass rusher, and that gives a clear path for a Cougar celebration in Shreveport.
Prediction: Houston 41, Louisiana 28