HOUSTON COUGARS (7-5) vs. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS (6-6)
Jan. 2, NOON ET, AMON G. CARTER STADIUM, FORT WORTH, TEXAS (ESPN)
Season highlights: Things looked bleak until converted receiver Greg Ward Jr. stepped under center to replace John O'Korn and help lead UH to a key road win over Memphis on Oct. 11. Ward led UH to wins in five of its final seven games after going 2-3 in the five games O'Korn started. UH’s defense, known as the Third Ward Defense, has been exceptional as the foundation of the Cougars’ bowl season, ranking among the top 20 in the FBS in points per game allowed (19.5), yards per play allowed (4.79) and total yards allowed (334.6).
Season lowlights: The Cougars stumbled out of the starting blocks with losses in two of their first three games, including a 27-7 loss to Texas San-Antonio in the season opener. After a stellar true freshman campaign in 2013, the sophomore slump hit O’Korn hard as he struggled for five games before surrendering his starting spot. A homecoming loss to Tulane was another stumble during the Cougars’ strong second half of the season.
Player to watch: Ward helps the Cougars' offense tick with his dual-threat ability as the triggerman in the offense. He’s averaged 291.4 total yards per game during his seven starts. Defensively, linebacker Efrem Oliphant has helped UH overcome the loss of veteran Derrick Mathews, who was lost for the season with an ACL injury against Memphis. Oliphant, a senior, has double-digit tackles in eight games while recording 129 total stops this season.
Motivation factor: The Cougars will want to finish strong after looking back upon the regular season and wondering what could have been. Single-digit losses to Cincinnati, Tulane and Central Florida showed just how close the Cougars could have been to an American Conference championship. An eight-win season and bowl championship could kick-start the offseason and set Tony Levine’s team up as a preseason squad to watch in the American in 2015. -- Brandon Chatmon
Season highlights: James Conner winning the ACC's player of the year award is a huge honor for a program that has produced no shortage of great running backs. On the field, a 30-20 win at BC in Week 2 enhanced expectations in the cluttered Coastal. It did not play out that way, but the Panthers winning their final two games -- particularly a 35-23 upset at Miami in the finale -- got them bowl eligible, an absolute must in their second year in the ACC, and in their third under coach Paul Chryst.
Season lowlights: A 24-20 home loss to Iowa on Sept. 20 was where it all started to go wrong for Pitt. The Panthers' first loss of the year turned into a span of six losses in seven games, threatening their postseason hopes and dealing a big blow to a defense that had played very well early on this season. None of those losses were as devastating as a 56-28 setback against Georgia Tech, a game that featured a ridiculous six lost fumbles by Pitt, including four in its first six offensive plays.
Player to watch: Conner is the ACC's best player, and therefore the team's best player. He finished fourth nationally in rushing yards (1,675) and was tied for second in rushing touchdowns (24), breaking Tony Dorsett's school record for rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and points in a season. He broke the 200-yard rushing mark three different times this season. And he's only a sophomore.
Motivation factor: There is a fine line between 7-6 and 6-7, and ending the season on a three-game win streak would be a big boost for the program going into Year 4 of the Chryst regime. Pitt's season started strong and finished strong, with plenty of forgettable moments in between. A bowl win could help define the tenor of the 2014 campaign, and create some excitement in the Steel City for 2015, as sophomore studs Conner and Tyler Boyd both return for next season. -- Matt Fortuna