Houston was a CFP contender, but lost three American Conference games. San Diego State also had high hopes coming into the season as well and went on to win the Mountain West Championship.
The Cougars beat Oklahoma in the opening game of the season and also had a big win against Louisville, but struggled in American Conference play.
Tom Herman has left for the Texas Longhorns, but the Cougars will have some stability as they promoted Offensive Coordiantor Major Applewhite to fill the void.
Quarterback Greg Ward has been banged up all year, but still had a solid year leading the team in both passing yards (3,328) and rushing yards (518). Ward is a former wide receiver making him a real threat with his legs. He has led the high powered passing attack that ranks number 15 in the FBS for yards per game and helps the Cougars to average 37.5 points per game.
Running back Duke Catalon, the Texas transfer, has also been banged up this season, which has hurt his production. He finished with 510 rushing yards. He is a threat to catch passes out of the backfield too, making the offense more dynamic.
Ward has plenty of talented targets in Linell Bonner, Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar. Bonner leads the group in yards with 1,076, while Allen and Dunbar are the big match-up problems standing at six feet three inches. Allen and Dunbar are great red zone threats as well totaling 11 receiving touchdowns between the two of them.
While the offense is high-powered, the defense has also been stellar allowing just 22.9 points per game. While the pass defense has been average, the rush defense is especially good, as the give up the second fewest rushing yards in the country.
Steven Taylor has been a premier pass rusher for the Cougars with nine sacks and Howard Wilson has been a turnover machine for Houston with five interceptions.
San Diego State Aztecs
The Aztecs were upset by South Alabama and also lost to Wyoming and Colorado State. They won the rematch against Wyoming in the Mountain West Championship Game and also had an impressive win against California early in the season.
Donnell Pumphrey is one of the best running backs in the country and one of only two backs to rush for over 2,000 yards, finishing with 2,018. He also added 16 touchdowns on the ground, meaning he would have been a Heisman Trophy finalist had his team done slightly better on the season. He was only held below 100 yards rushing on three occasions this year. Rashaad Penny has also rushed for 995 yards to help create the seventh best rushing attack in the FBS and helps out in the return game as the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year.
The passing game is an issue for the Aztecs. Christian Chapman has thrown for 1,866 yards and their leading receiver, Micah Holder, has just 529 receiving yards. If the run gets stopped, they do not have many answers.
San Diego State controls the clock, which vastly helps out their defense, which allows just 21 points a game. Their rush defense is ranked 17th in the country, while their pass defense falls in the middle of the pack for FBS teams.
The best player on the Aztec defense is Damontae Kazee, who had eight interceptions last year and added seven more this season. He was the defensive player of the year in the Mountain West in 2015 and repeated that feat for the 2016 season.
The key to watch in this game is Donnell Pumphrey vs. the stout Houston rush defense. In two games this season against teams with winning records, Pumphrey was held to under 100 yards in each game. Houston will stop the Aztec rushing attack and then get their pass attack going on offense.
Houston Cougars 36 San Diego State Aztecs 24