Air Force should feel comfortable when it takes the field for Wednesday's Armed Forces Bowl for numerous reasons.
First, the foe is familiar, as Air Force downed Houston 31-28 on Sept. 13. Second, the field is familiar, as the Falcons fell to host TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Nov. 22 in their regular-season finale. In addition, Air Force played in this bowl last season, losing 42-36 to California.
WHEN: Noon Dec. 31.
WHERE: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas.
TV: ESPN (Terry Gannon will do play-by-play, with David Norrie as the analyst).
THE LINE: Houston by 3.5.
RECORD VS. BOWL TEAMS: Air Force 2-4, Houston 2-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Air Force T-36th, Houston 81st.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Air Force − Troy Calhoun (0-1 in bowls); Houston − Kevin Sumlin (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This one should have a lot of points, so if offense is your thing, settle in and watch.
KEY STATS: Houston leads the nation in total offense, averaging 575.1 yards per game. But the Cougars also are 103rd in total defense, surrendering 418.6 yards per game. They give up 169.5 rushing yards per game, which is 91st nationally. Air Force has the fifth-ranked rushing attack in the nation, at 268.9 yards per game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Most folks never have heard of Houston QB Case Keenum, which is too bad considering he leads the nation in total offense at 416.1 yards per game. He also leads the nation with 4,768 passing yards.
This is one of two rematches this bowl season; the first came in the Dec. 20 EagleBank Bowl, when Wake Forest avenged a regular-season loss to Navy by downing the Midshipmen 29-19.
Houston was to play host to Air Force in the regular season, but the matchup had to be moved to Dallas because of Hurricane Ike. That game was played on the campus of SMU.
Houston is searching for its first bowl victory since the 1980 season, when the Bill Yeoman-coached Cougars beat Navy in the now-defunct Garden State Bowl. Since that victory, Houston is 0-8 in the postseason. This is the Cougars' fourth bowl in a row and their fifth this decade; they went five times in the 1980s and '90s combined.
Who has the edge?
Air Force run offense vs. Houston run defense Air Force's option-based rushing attack once again was one of the nation's most productive. The Falcons ran for at least 200 yards in nine games, including a 380-yard, four-TD performance in an early season victory over Houston. As that game showed, Houston's rush defense isn't much when an opponent makes a concerted effort to run the ball.
Edge: Air Force.
Air Force pass offense vs. Houston pass defense In its earlier victory over Houston, Air Force did not complete a pass in seven attempts, yet still won. The Falcons completed 66 passes all season, but they still may be tempted to throw against Houston. The Cougars' pass defense is rancid, and Houston must make sure Air Force gets no big plays in the passing game.
Houston run offense vs. Air Force run defense Houston has an underrated rushing attack, thanks to freshman RB Bryce Beall, who ran for 1,112 yards and 12 TDs. He wasn't the starter when the Cougars and Falcons met in September, but he had five 100-yard outings in the final eight regular-season games. Air Force's run defense is nothing special.
Houston pass offense vs. Air Force pass defense This is where Houston needs to do a lot of damage. The Cougars threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns against the Falcons in September, and they need to approach – if not surpass – those numbers. QB Case Keenum has had a great season, and WRs Tyron Carrier and Mark Hafner are a dynamic 1-2 punch; they have combined for 1,869 yards and 20 TDs. L.J. Castile is a deep threat, and eight of his 29 catches have gone for touchdowns. Beall also is an effective receiver out of the backfield. Air Force couldn't handle teams that made it a priority to pass – which is what Houston is going to do. Air Force does have a good pass rush, and Houston has had issues protecting Keenum. DE Jake Paulson had 2.5 sacks in the first meeting with the Cougars.
Air Force special teams vs. Houston special teams Air Force K Ryan Harrison – who is from the Fort Worth area – is a tremendous weapon. He is 22-of-25 on field-goal attempts this season, including 6-of-9 from beyond 40 yards. He doubles as the punter and has had two blocked. Reggie Rembert returns punts and kickoffs; he's much more effective on punt returns. Air Force's coverage units are good. Houston K Ben Bell is 10-of-15, but seven of his field goals have come inside the 30 and he is 0-of-1 from beyond 36 yards. Chase Turner averages 45.6 yards per punt, but the Cougars' punt-coverage unit is awful. Carrier has the ability to be a good kick returner. Harrison gives Air Force a huge advantage if this one comes down to a field goal.
Edge: Air Force.
Air Force coaches vs. Houston coaches This is the second bowl in as many seasons for Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. He tweaked the Falcons' option-based attack upon his arrival, and it paid off. This is the first season for Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who had been at Oklahoma. He revved up an already-potent offense, but the Cougars need a lot of defensive improvement.
X-factor: Air Force's pass rush bears watching. The Falcons put pressure on Keenum in the first meeting, and if they can do so again, it obviously enhances their chances of beating the Cougars for the second time this season.
Air Force will win if: It's all about the running game. If the Falcons can't run, they have no shot. The defense is going to have problems with Houston's offense, so the running game must chew clock and put a lot of points on the board.
Houston will win if: The defense has to 'bow up against the run. If Air Force runs for 380 yards again, the Falcons are going to win. A realistic goal for Houston's defense is to try to "limit" Air Force to 250 rushing yards.
The picks Mike Huguenin: Houston 35, Air Force 33.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.