Houston quarterback John O’Korn was named AAC Rookie of the Year after leading all true freshmen nationally with 26 touchdown passes. He was fourth in the conference with 2,889 passing yards, and his touchdown passes and 239 completions were program records for freshmen.
O’Korn’s favorite target is Deontay Greenberry, a sophomore wide receiver who was the only Cougar position player to be named first-team all-league. He topped the AAC with 100.5 receiving yards per game, while ranking third with 76 catches.
But if the Commodores have a team strength defensively, it’s a talented, experienced and opportunistic secondary that finished second in the SEC and 19th nationally with 16 interceptions. The bell cow is senior free safety Kenny Ladler, who earned consensus first-team All-SEC honors.
Ladler’s five forced fumbles set a school record and tied for the nation lead, while his five interceptions ranked second in the SEC. He had a career-high 14 tackles against Missouri and South Carolina, the SEC East’s top two teams. Over the last seven games, Ladler had all five of the Commodires’ forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Senior cornerback Andre Hal, a second-team All-SEC pick, tied for the league lead with 14 passes defensed after finishing second in that category last year. At 6-foot and 180 pounds, he’s considered a mid-round draft pick at worst for the NFL Draft in 2014.
Houston’s young but talented passing attack averaged 284.1 yards per game, good enough to rank fourth in the ACC. But the Commodores were fifth in the SEC in passing defense, allowing only 204.1 yards per game.
Whichever team wins this game within the game will go a long way in deciding who wins the game.
Even in the ultra-talented SEC, Commodores wide receiver Jordan Matthews has often been a man among boys. Not only did he finish his career as the most prolific receiver in league history with 257 receptions, that figure also ranks third all time in NCAA history.
But the record-smashing career for the Madison, Ala., native didn’t stop there. He also set SEC records in career receiving yards (3,616) and 100-yard receiving games (18). His 107 catches this year also set the SEC single-season record, marking the first time a league receiver had surpassed the century mark in catches for a season.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pounder has been named first-team All-American by several organizations, including USA Today and Athlon. He becomes the first Commodore to receive a first-team All-America nod since linebacker Jamie Duncan was named to the Football Writers Association list in 1996.
"He’s one of the best players in college football," Florida coach Will Muschamp said this season of Matthews, who finished with 74 catches for 904 yards in SEC play. "He’s a guy that goes and attacks the football. He competes every down. He blocks. He does everything."
Matthews also comes up big in key situations. In tight wins over Tennessee and Wake Forest to close the season, he made crucial fourth-down catches to keep game-winning drives alive. That was especially so against Wake Forest, when he was draped by two defenders but made a miraculous catch that saved the game.
"I still don’t know how Jordan Matthews made that catch," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said after the game. "… That’s who he is, though. Jordan Matthews had an unbelievable catch that put us in position to win the game."
3 — It’s not as much a stat as it is a fact, but these are the best of times for Vanderbilt football as it will be playing in a third-straight bowl game for the first time in program history under Franklin, its third-year coach. Last year, the Commodores won a bowl game for only the third time when they beat North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl after losing to Cincinnati two seasons ago in the Liberty Bowl during Franklin’s debut year.
Vanderbilt will be without senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the team’s starter who tore the ACL in his left knee in the win over Georgia on Oct. 19. He missed the next two games but returned to play despite the injury in wins over Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest to close the season.
Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette again replaces Carta-Samuels, who completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 2,268 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. More of a read-option quarterback, Robinette passed for 488 yards and rushed for 177 with six scores. He played in nine games, starting two, including a 34-17 win at Florida.
Both Vanderbilt and Houston feature rising coaching stars — Franklin and the Cougars’ Tony Levine.
Franklin has been mentioned in connection with several prominent job openings, most recently Texas, after guiding Vanderbilt to consecutive seasons of at least eight wins for the first time since 1927-28. Much of that success has to do with the stability of the coaching staff that is just one of nine in the country to remain intact the last two seasons.
Houston is in its second season under Levine, who followed successful former Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin after he moved to Texas A&M. Unlike Franklin’s staff, though, there has been recent turnover at Houston.
Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham was named to a similar position earlier this month at TCU, leaving Levine to promote assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator Travis Bush to take over play-calling duties.
While both teams feature quality players on both sides of the ball, there is only one who can take over a game, and that’s Matthews. If the Cougars allow the talented wide receiver to run free.