Dec. 13, 2006
The Houston program is experiencing a renaissance under coach Art Briles. South Carolina is hoping for the same kind of success from Steve Spurrier.
Both coaches look to win their first bowl games at their respective schools when the Cougars meet the Gamecocks in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Dec. 29.
Briles took over a program in 2003 that was two years removed from an 0-11 season. He made it to a bowl game in his first season and led Houston (10-3) to its first Conference USA title in 10 years this season with a 34-20 win over Southern Mississippi in the conference championship game on Dec. 1.
"There was no respect for the University of Houston football program across the state when we got here," Briles said. "I know how the image was when I got here and it has changed. It's changed for the better."
Briles, who has led the Cougars to bowls in three of his first four years, was named C-USA coach of the year and was one of nine finalists for the Eddie Robinson national coach of the year award.
"This certainly is a marquee matchup," Briles said. "South Carolina has played some good football this year, and so have we. It will be a challenge, and we are definitely up for it."
Under Briles, the Cougars lost 42-13 in the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl and 54-48 in triple overtime to Hawaii in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl. Houston hasn't won a bowl game since beating Navy 35-0 in the 1980 Garden State Bowl and is 7-8-1 all-time in bowl games.
Houston, which is on a six-game win streak for the first time in 16 years, has its first 10-win season since going 10-1 in 1990.
"A lot of people doubted us and said it couldn't be done," Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb - C-USA's offensive player of the year - said after the conference title game. "It was done tonight and hopefully, for the program, it will continue to be done."
Spurrier is hoping to institute the same results at South Carolina (7-5), where he's led the team to bowl games in each of his first two seasons.
The Gamecocks, who went 16-19 in three seasons before the former Florida coach arrived, won seven games in both 2005 and 2006.
"Our goal the first two years was win more games than you lose because we thought it was fair," Spurrier said. "Now, we're going to start upping our goals."
Spurrier, who is the first coach to lead the Gamecocks to bowls in his first two seasons, is staying at South Carolina despite overtures from big-name schools Alabama and Miami.
All five of the Gamecocks' losses this season came against ranked teams, but South Carolina beat then-No. 24 Clemson 31-28 in the regular-season finale on Nov. 25, its first win over the in-state rival Tigers in five years.
South Carolina lost its five games this season by an average of 7.8 points before upsetting Clemson.
"It was about time we finally won one of the close ones," quarterback Blake Mitchell said. "And we did. We finally finished one."
With that victory in mind, Spurrier expects to see a better bowl performance this season. Last year, the Gamecocks blew a 28-7 lead to Missouri and lost 38-31 in the Independence Bowl.
"They play in that bowl game, it's not like, 'Coach, so long, I'm out of here,' " said Spurrier, who received a contract extension on Dec. 2. "They're going to see all of us next year. ... They all know they're playing for their spot starting out next year."
South Carolina, 3-9 in bowl games, lost 34-10 to Indiana in the 1988 Liberty Bowl.
"We'll be blues (fans) when we come to Memphis. We'll be a little bit of Elvis fans, too," Spurrier said. "We'll try and blend in with the locals."
Houston won the inaugural C-USA title in 1996 and lost 30-17 to Syracuse in the Liberty Bowl that season. The Cougars are hoping for better results behind the leadership of Kolb, who helped the team finish sixth in the nation in total offense and 11th in scoring, averaging 439.9 yards and 32.8 points per game.
Kolb, who threw 27 touchdown passes and only three interceptions this year, is C-USA's all-time leader in total offense with 13,424 yards and he owns nearly every passing record at Houston.
"There's nothing I could have asked for better," said Kolb, who is fourth in NCAA history in total offense. "We've built it back up to where it needs to be, and there's a sense of accomplishment with that."
Houston is 2-0 against South Carolina, but the schools haven't met since 1974. Spurrier is 1-0 against the Cougars, beating them 45-21 in 1995 while with the Gators.