Vanderbilt, MTSU get invites, Music City Bowl preview

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee will continue historic seasons after accepting bowl game invitations Sunday.
For the first time in program history, Vanderbilt (8-4) will play in a third-straight bowl game when it faces Houston (8-4) in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 4 at noon CST at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. The Commodores won at least eight games in consecutive seasons for the first since 1927-28.
In its first season in Conference USA, Middle Tennessee (8-4) will play in its fourth bowl game in eight seasons after accepting a bid to play Navy (7-4) in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 at 10:45 a.m. CST in Fort Worth, Texas. The Blue Raiders won at least eight games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92.
Meanwhile, the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl extended bids Sunday to Ole Miss (7-5) and Georgia Tech (7-5). The 16th annual game pits opponents from the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, respectively, and will be played here Dec. 30 at 2:15 p.m. CST at LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
Under third-year coach James Franklin, the Commodores posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1974-75. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee, Florida and Georgia in the same season for the first time.
Vanderbilt is led by senior Jordan Matthews, the most prolific receiver in SEC history. He set league records in single-season receptions, career receptions and career receiving yards. The BBVA Compass Bowl matchup will be the first meeting between Vanderbilt and Houston.
“It’s about the players,” said Franklin, whose Commodores are 23-15 over three seasons and 15-4 in their last 19 games — second-best among SEC teams during that stretch. “It’s always been about the players and will always be about the players.”
Last season, Vanderbilt beat North Carolina State 38-24 in the Music City Bowl after losing to Cincinnati 31-24 the previous season. Before beating Boston College 16-14 in the 2008 Music City Bowl, the Commodores hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1982 when it lost 36-28 to Air Force in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham. 
“There was an SEC team (Ole Miss) that played in this game last year,” Franklin said. “They sold it out at 55,000. That’s what we have to do. We have to sell this game out with 55,000 Black & Gold fans going crazy. This is what it is all about.”
This will be Vanderbilt’s seventh bowl appearance. A win in the eighth annual BBVA Compass Bowl will give the Commodores consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time in program history.
Under first-year coach Tony Levine, Houston finished fourth in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference with a 5-3 league record. The Cougars are playing in their eighth bowl game in 11 years, including beating Penn State 30-14 in last year’s Ticket City Bowl in Levine’s first game as head coach.
“We are excited to accept an invitation to the BBVA Compass Bowl and look forward to making the trip to Birmingham,” Levine said. “Knowing that we will be facing a formidable opponent from the SEC is a great challenge and one that our program is looking forward to. The setting will provide a great atmosphere for our student-athletes and our fans.”
Middle Tennessee is riding a five-game win streak after going 6-2 in league play and finishing second in C-USA’s East Division. The Blue Raiders return to practice Friday and depart for the 11th annual Armed Forces Bowl to be played at Texas Christian’s Carter Stadium on Dec. 26. 
“I’m just proud of our team and what they accomplished this year and the overall state of the program,” said eighth-year coach Rick Stockstill, who guided the Blue Raiders to consecutive seasons of at least eight wins for the first time since 1991-92.
“This is the fifth time in eight years we have been bowl eligible,” he added. “We are graduating student-athletes. We have players playing in the NFL. This is a special team and a special group of seniors. I am proud of everything they have accomplished.”
In their last season in the Sun Belt Conference in 2012, the Blue Raiders also won eight games, but were not tendered a bowl game offer. That snub served as motivation for MTSU throughout the entire off-season and into this season.
   
“Nothing will ever replace that feeling last year because that group of seniors and team should have been rewarded with a bowl game,” Stockstill said. “This team this year is being rewarded. I just wish that team that had a great year last year could have had the experience of going to a bowl game.”
The Blue Raiders are led by senior Logan Kilgore, who became the first quarterback in program history to pass for more than 2,000 yards in three straight seasons. He also owns the school record with 53 career touchdown passes.
Navy will play its regular-season finale against Army on Saturday in Philadelphia. The Midshipmen will be playing in their 10th bowl game in 11 seasons and facing the Blue Raiders for the first time.
The Midshipmen average 320.1 rushing yards per game, third-best in the nation, and are led by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who leads the nation in scoring with 156 points on 26 touchdowns. He is a Nashville native who prepped at Goodpasture Christian.
“They are similar to us in a lot of ways,” Stockstill said of Navy. “Both are tough, hard-nosed teams. I told our team today when we learned we were playing Navy that we had a real challenge.”
As for the Music City Bowl, both Ole Miss and Georgia Tech are coming off overtime losses to their instate rival to close the regular season. Ole Miss fell 17-10 to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night to finish 3-5 in SEC play, while Georgia Tech lost 41-34 to Georgia in a non-conference game two days later. The Yellow Jackets finished 5-3 in ACC play.
“We look forward to hosting the teams, fans, coaches and administrators from Ole Miss and Georgia Tech at our 16th annual Bowl in a matchup that hasn’t occurred since 1971,” said Scott Ramsey, president and CEO of the Music City Bowl as well as executive director of the Nashville Sports Council.
“We are proud of our affiliation with the SEC and ACC and hope everyone from both schools will enjoy all that Music City has to offer over the New Year holiday,” he added.
Ole Miss is making its second bowl appearance in as many seasons under coach Hugh Freeze. Last year, the Rebels beat Pittsburgh 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace, who passed for 3,090 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season, was most valuable player of the bowl game last year.
Under sixth-year coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets went to the Sun Bowl the past two years, snapping a seven-game bowl losing streak last year with a 21-7 win over Southern Cal. This year, the Yellow Jackets’ offense ranked first in the ACC and sixth nationally in rushing at 311.7 yards per game, while leading the league with 45 rushing scores.
Georgia Tech is making its first Music City Bowl appearance, while Ole Miss is making its second. West Virginia beat the Rebels 49-38 in 2000.