The Cougars Are Going to Vegas, Baby!

The University of Houston Cougars might not have a permanent head coach. And half of the coaching staff is in Austin looking for new homes. But that’s not going to stop the Cougars from going to Las Vegas for a bowl game in two weeks.

That’s right, the Coogs are going to Sin City for the 25th edition of the Las Vegas Bowl. The game will kick off from UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Houston time on December 17.

The Las Vegas Bowl is one of those bowl games owned by ESPN, and it seems to exist primarily for the sole reason of providing ESPN with some live programing. It’s generally not one of the prime bowl games, and it usually features mediocre matchups consisting of the sixth-best team of the PAC 12 going up against the Mountain West. Outside of fans of those conferences, usually only gamblers show an interest in the game.

This year’s game then is a bit different. First there’s the fact that it features no team from the state of Utah (BYU has played in the game six times, while Utah has been there five times). But the game this year is actually halfway decent as the Las Vegas Bowl's organizers, dealing with the prospect of inviting a PAC 12 team with a losing record, worked out a deal to bring in the No. 4 team in the American Conference.

So the 9-3 Houston Cougars will face the 10-3 Mountain West champs, San Diego State. It should make for a decent matchup as San Diego State features one of the best running games in football while the Cougars have the NCAA’s No. 2 run defense, surrendering just 97.2 yards a game. San Diego State will be led by senior running back Donnel Pumphrey, who is averaging 155.2 rushing yards per game, and who is second all time in NCAA career rushing yards with 6,290 yards — he is just 107 yards behind Ron Dayne, who holds the NCAA record.

Still, the Las Vegas Bowl has to be a bit of a comedown for the Cougars. Last year saw them dominate Florida State in the Peach Bowl, one of the big-boy bowl games. And after the opening weekend defeat of Oklahoma, the Cougars were seen as the trendy pick to once again make a New Year’s Six bowl game, and possibly sneak in the College Football Playoffs. But then the rest of the season happened.

There are worse destinations for a bowl game than Las Vegas. Hell, most destinations for anything in the United States are worse than Las Vegas. Most projections over the past several weeks had UH heading off to places like Birmingham, Alabama, or St. Petersburg, Florida. But now UH fans get to head off to the gambling and party mecca of the country. And seriously, what better place is there to drink off what this season turned out to be while rewarding the players who don’t get to run off to Austin with Tom Herman?

There’ll be lots of think pieces written this offseason about how this Cougars campaign went wrong. Maybe the Cougars just couldn’t live up to the hype. Or maybe it was the result of injuries suffered by a key player on defense while participating in one of Herman’s day-before-game team building exercises. Don’t forget a key player's being suspended for the Navy game.

But while the loss to Navy can always be justified — Navy is a ranked squad, after all — the loss to SMU two weeks later revealed a team that didn’t look prepared on the field and that, in many ways, looked to be lacking in confidence. Then there was the loss to Memphis, in which the coaching staff appeared more concerned with future jobs than with devising a game plan.

So head off to Las Vegas and have a blast. Take in the Las Vegas Strip — it really does look fantastic at Christmas time. Make sure to get to the city early enough to hit a sports book in time to place a bet or two down on the Cougars to win the game or cover the spread or hit the over/under. And whatever else, do not attempt to fly out of Las Vegas on a Sunday.

And who knows, maybe the Cougars will actually know who the next head coach is by the time the game kicks off.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal