LIBERTY BOWL (Memphis)
HOUSTON VS. SOUTH CAROLINA
12/29, 4:30 p.m. ET ESPN
POINTSPREAD AT PRESS TIME
South Carolina by 6 points, total of 56
South Carolina: 7-5
Both teams largely met expectations, if you accept that a team with a 7-5 record in the SEC is better than a team that's 10-3 in Conference USA. Houston was tabbed by Phil Steele to win their division in that league. Nice call there. Athlon had them 64th in the country, but certainly competitive in the conference race. South Carolina's just not ready yet to beat teams like Florida and Tennessee in the SEC East. Throw in Clemson as an annual foe, and you can't project a 10-win season for the Gamecocks. The Athlon preseason publication had South Carolina at 28th even while projecting four losses and two coin flip games.
Houston: 33-22 versus the 108th ranked schedule
South Carolina: 25-17 versus the 15th ranked schedule
You can get a sense here that SC is the better team. Houston was +11, South Carolina was +8 in scoring...but South Carolina was playing the much more demanding schedule. It was certainly more than a field goal tougher. Was it 9 points tougher? That's what handicappers will have to decide in this bowl game. South Carolina did put a little air in its numbers with a 45-6 win over Florida Atlantic, and a 52-7 win over Middle Tennessee. There were so many other tough games that we'll grant them those wins. Houston's non-conference schedule was Oklahoma State, Miami, Louisiana Lafayette, and Grambling State. They actually lost to Lafayette and only beat Grambling by 20 points. So, that scoring differential is largely a reflection of their dominance in C-USA.
Houston: 8-4 versus the spread
South Carolina: 8-3 versus the spread
Both teams turned out to be much better than the oddsmakers expected this year. Part of this result is because of ugly early results. Houston was a 15-point favorite in their season opener, and had to rally from way down to beat Rice 31-30, but hey covered their next three games. Then, Houston lost a stunner at home to Louisiana Lafayette as a 17-point favorite. They followed that up with a loss to Southern Miss, and everyone gave up on them. Obviously, they weren't going to be all that good. BANG...6-0 straight up and ATS the rest of the way. South Carolina looked awful in an 18-0 home loss to Georgia on September 9th. Georgia turned out not to be very good this year. The next week, the Gamecocks could only beat Wofford 27-20. Everyone gave up on them. BANG...four straight covers and seven of nine...including near upsets of Auburn and Florida. Okay, it's not really a bang when four straight up losses follow the echo. But...it definitely was an ATS bang. Both teams were 3-1 ATS in September. South Carolina was 5-2 ATS through October, while Houston was 5-3 ATS. Did the lines catch up? Nope. Each team was 3-1 ATS the rest of the way. Each team was a profit center for patient wagerers.
AVERAGE YARDS PER GAME/TURNOVER INFLUENCE
Houston: +100.7, with a season turnover differential of +10
South Carolina: +46.1, with a season turnover differential of -3
Though you can't really tell it from the full scope of data so far, Houston is also one of those spread offense teams that will typically behave in predictable ways. Well, they're supposed to be. For some reason, they didn't blow out the teams they were supposed to rout. Then they held their own when they visited physical Miami of Florida in late September. So, the jury's still out on whether we should think of them as your typical mid-major squad that has a big offense, but an undersized defense. They do look that way to the naked eye. And they had the +100 yardage differential that characterizes many of these types of teams. South Carolina's game-by-game yardage numbers are nutso. They were nine yards better than national #2 Florida, but just two yards better than Wofford. They were 120 yards better than Clemson, but 132 yards worse than Georgia. They only gained 383 yards on the Kentucky team that everyone moved the ball at will against. They topped 400 yards on Florida's very strong defense. Averages don't mean much with these guys.
QUARTERBACK TD/INT RATIOS
Houston: 27-4, a great performance, TD's with very little risk
South Carolina: 19-12, evidence that the world caught up to Spurrier
We've already talked about this in the earlier sections. Houston's probably your typical spread offense team that didn't quite play to the profile this year. South Carolina is hard to pin down. They can play with anybody, whether it's Florida or Wofford. Each was better than people realized in the big picture all season long. This presents a combination of volatility that's going to make the game very hard to handicap.
GAMES VERSUS SIMILAR OPPONENTS
Houston played strong in a 14-13 loss at Miami. There were outgained 320-276, but avoided turnovers against a strong defense on the road. That's probably a pretty good match...as best as you're going to get given South Carolina's erratic play. A 34-25 home victory over Oklahoma State provided more evidence that Houston would be competitive when stepping up in class against major conference teams.
South Carolina's all over the place in their results...so there's no point in trying to find similar opposition. You'll find a sample where they looked great, and one where they didn't. It is pretty clear that South Carolina doesn't get blown out much. So that at least suggests a competitive game even if they don't perform at a peak level. This is largely a team that plays to the level of their opponent. Wins over Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee were exceptions, as the Gamecocks put the pieces together and won routs. There aren't any bad games like that to balance things out, even though SC played some big time opponents. This probably takes any "easy" Houston wins out of the equation for this bowl.
MOTIVATION FOR THIS GAME
Houston should be very excited about winning the conference and stepping up to play an SEC team. Sometimes teams relax after winning a conference championship game. That would be the only possible negative here, but that doesn't seem likely for an underdog (that's more common for favorites).
South Carolina may have a lot of trouble getting up for this one. They played Florida in Gainesville, and Clemson in Death Valley in November. How do you get up for Houston in Nashville? If motivation is a factor here, it's going to favor the Cougars.
LAST YEAR'S BOWL PERFORMANCES
Houston lost to Kansas 42-13 in the Fort Worth Bowl, losing yardage 539-244. We've mentioned a few times that mid-major teams will often get squashed when they face major conference teams who are in the mood to play. This is an example of that fact. If the major conference team isn't motivated, the mid-major can certainly hang with them. Unfortunately for the sake of national understanding, that happens more often than not...so you have people saying that gimmick teams with undersized defenses are just as good as real national powerhouses. It was nice of Kansas to remind people of what can happen when the major conference team is in the mood to play.
South Carolina lost to Missouri 38-31 in the Independence Bowl, losing yardage 504-408
RECENT BOWL TRENDS
Houston's only other bowl appearance this century was a 54-48 overtime loss at Hawaii as a 10-point underdog in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl.
South Carolina beat Ohio State in back to back Outback Bowls under Lou Holtz after the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Last year was their first bowl appearance under Steve Spurrier.
WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
If you throw everything in a bowl and stir around a bit, it seems that the most likely expectation is a competitive game that puts on an entertaining show for TV viewers and fans. It could turn out to be a conservative and low scoring game, or it could turn out to be a shootout. We just don't see South Carolina being so motivated that they squash Houston the way Kansas did last year. And, we don't see South Carolina laying down in such a way that Houston could ever coast and feel comfortable.
I'd rate the percentages this way:
60% that Houston stays within the number, with probably a 30/30 split for an outright victory. Underdogs can win these early games, particularly with conference champions who are motivated to make a statement against a flat favorite.
40% that South Carolina expresses the major/mid-major dominance at the point of attack in a way that leads to a victory of a touchdown or more.
We'll let the weather forecast dictate any thoughts on the total. These teams can play tight low scoring games, Houston/Miami and South Carolina/Florida were great examples of that. Those games combined for 27 and 33 points. If the weather was great, we could see more of a shootout in the fashion of Houston/Oklahoma State or South Carolina/Clemson (59 and 58 points).