Thursday's Armed Forces Bowl looks a lot like last season's Armed Forces Bowl.
Air Force and Houston meet in a rematch of last season's bowl, which was won by Houston 34-28.
Actually, this will be the team's third meeting in the past 15 months. Houston and Air Force played during the regular season in 2008, with the Falcons taking a 31-28 decision. This will be Air Force's third trip in a row to the Armed Forces Bowl; the Falcons lost 42-36 to California in 2007.
This is Houston's fifth consecutive bowl appearance. That breaks the school record of four in a row set from 1978-81, when Bill Yeoman was coach. Last year's victory over Air Force was the only win during the streak.
WHEN: Noon, Thursday.
WHERE: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas.
TV: ESPN (Dave LaMont will do play-by-play, with J.C. Pearson as the analyst).
THE LINE: Houston by 4.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Air Force 1-5, Houston 4-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Air Force 55th, Houston 95th.
BCS RANKINGS: Both are unranked.
OFFICIALS: A crew from the Mid-American Conference.
COACHES: Air Force - Troy Calhoun (0-2 in bowls); Houston - Kevin Sumlin (1-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This might be a rematch of last season's Armed Forces Bowl, but there still are some interesting story lines. The biggest is Houston's pass offense against Air Force's pass defense. The potential exists for a lot of points, which would be a great way to kick off a day that has five bowl games.
KEY STATS: Houston leads the nation in passing at 450 yards per game. But Air Force counters with the nation's top-ranked pass defense (149.7 ypg).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Houston junior QB Case Keenum earned C-USA MVP honors and leads the nation in total offense (429.3 yard per game). He has thrown for 5,449 yards and 43 touchdowns. He guides a super-charged offense that ranks first nationally in total offense (581.2 ypg) and is second in the nation in scoring (43.9 ppg).
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Air Force rush offense vs. Houston rush defense: The Falcons have the nation's fourth-best rushing attack (273.6 ypg). Jared Tew and Asher Clark are the workhorse runners. Tew leads the squad with 797 yards. That should worry a porous Houston defense that ranks 112th in the nation (213.1 ypg) against the run. How will the Cougars get off the field?
Edge: Air Force
Air Force pass offense vs. Houston pass defense: It rarely if ever has been about the pass at Air Force. This season is no different, as the Falcons don't ask QB Tim Jefferson to throw much in an attack that ranks 118th in the nation in passing yards per game (82.3). How is this for contrast: Jefferson has five TD passes, Houston's Case Keenum 43. That means Houston's leaky pass defense (229.6 ypg/77th) should be able to rest easy.
Houston rush offense vs. Air Force rush defense: The Cougars aren't built around the run, but Bryce Beall and Charles Sims have combined for 1,301 yards and 16 touchdowns. Air Force has been solid against the run, ranking 45th in the nation (136.1 ypg).
Houston pass offense vs. Air Force pass defense: Keenum loves to hook up with WR James Cleveland, Conference USA's newcomer of the year who caught 101 passes for 1,182 yards and 14 TDs. He is one of four Cougars wide receivers with at least 64 receptions. Twelve Cougars have caught at least 10 passes and seven have caught at least 20. Air Force has the top pass defense in the nation. Falcon CBs Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright will be tested. And while the Falcons rank first in pass defense, BYU QB Max Hall torched them for 377 yards and five TDs in a 17-point win.
Air Force special teams vs. Houston special teams: The Falcons have a strong kicking duo with K Erik Soderberg and P Brandon Geyer. Rembert gives Air Force a dangerous option on kickoff returns. Tyron Carrier is one of C-USA's top return men. Matt Hogan has hit all 10 of his field-goal attempts.
Edge: Air Force
Air Force coaching staff vs. Houston coaching staff: Houston's Kevin Sumlin is one of the nation's hottest young coaches. He earned C-USA coach of the year honors after leading the Cougars to wins over Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State en route to winning the league's West Division. Cougars offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen is a hot commodity. Air Force's Troy Calhoun is a dynamic coach who has an impressive blend of NFL and college experience.
X-factor: Watch the turnover battle. These teams have been among the nation's best in turnover margin. Air Force ranks third in the nation, while Houston is 15th. Which team will be more error-free? That likely will determine who wins.
Air Force will win if: The Falcons' defense has been one of the country's best-kept secrets. Air Force's defense ranks 10th in the nation, yielding just 284.8 yards per game. That's the school's best ranking since 1966. And the defense yields just 15.3 points per game, its best mark since 1998. The Falcons don't have to shut down this prolific Houston offense. But Air Force needs to at least slow down the Cougars and control the clock with its ground game, which would keep the ball away from Houston.
Houston will win if: Keenum is hot. Houston's knows its defense is a liability and unable to consistently stop teams. That won't change in the bowl game. So that means Keenum and this offense will have to be clicking and scoring lots of points to pull out yet another victory. The bottom line: Expect Houston to pass ... a lot.
EXPERT PICKS Olin Buchanan: Houston 34, Air Force 28
Tom Dienhart: Houston 47, Air Force 29
David Fox: Houston 38, Air Force 28
Mike Huguenin: Houston 37, Air Force 31
Steve Megargee: Houston 38, Air Force 24