Set to appear in a third postseason game in as many seasons after playing in four bowl games over the program's first 120 years, Vanderbilt has come a long way in a short amount of time.
To win back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, however, the Commodores will have to overcome the loss of their starting quarterback.
Vanderbilt will be without Austyn Carta-Samuels when it takes on Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. on Saturday.
Prior to last season, the Commodores (8-4) didn't have a nine-win season since 1915, and they've posted back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time since 1927-28.
"It's dramatic," coach James Franklin said of the changes to the program. "From a cultural standpoint, from an expectations standpoint, it's a 360-degree difference. We still have a long ways to go, as a whole organization and program. But to think that we have a chance to go to our third straight bowl game, got a chance to have another nine-win season.
"We just need to keep building. It allows us to continue to change perception about Vanderbilt football, and who and what we are."
While things appear to be looking up for the Commodores, who defeated North Carolina State in last year's Music City Bowl, they're without their starting QB.
Carta-Samuels underwent knee surgery following the conclusion of the regular season to repair a torn ACL suffered in a win over then-No. 15 Georgia on Oct. 19. The injury forced him to miss two games but he was able to start the team's final three regular season contests. However, the school felt it was best if he had surgery before the bowl game in order to be healthy for NFL draft workouts this spring.
He finished the year with 2,268 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Patton Robinette is expected to start in Carta-Samuels' place. He started the two games Carta-Samuels missed, completing 21 of 40 passes for 273 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a loss at then-No. 14 Texas A&M and win at Florida.
Robinette will likely be looking in the direction of receiver Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leader in receptions and yards.
Matthews finished the regular season fourth in the FBS in receptions with 107 and seventh in yards at 1,334. A native of Alabama who will be playing less than 100 miles from his hometown, the senior is looking to end his college career on a high note.
"Being from that state, I get to bring a lot of my teammates and this family to my home state to show them around. I think it will be a good trip," Matthews said. "Even the stuff outside the bowl games, not just the team accomplishments and the individual accomplishments, everything (the seniors) have come in and said we we're going to do, we were able to turn it around and do it. Now we have one more test, to be able to go down to Birmingham and get a win."
To do that, Vanderbilt's defense will need to step up and stop a high-powered Houston attack.
The Cougars (8-4) averaged 33.9 points, and freshman quarterback John O'Korn had a strong year, throwing for 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Like Vanderbilt, Houston also has a dynamic receiving threat, with Deontay Greenberry hauling in 76 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"We are very excited about our bowl game for a number of reasons," coach Tony Levine said. "In no particular order: To play in a January bowl game is certainly an honor, to play a program such as Vanderbilt with coach Franklin and their staff, great respect for them, the job they've done and are doing, and certainly a member of the Southeastern Conference. It will be fun for us to go against Vanderbilt."
Houston struggled down the stretch, losing three consecutive November games before defeating rival SMU 34-0 in the season finale on Nov. 29. With a young quarterback, however, the team is optimistic that this season is only the start of great things to come for the program. O'Korn threw for 2,889 yards, third in the country among true freshman quarterbacks.
"It was just an amazing experience and such a blessing to start as a true freshman for the majority of the season," O'Korn said. "Going into the season, our motto was 'Something to Prove' and I think we proved a lot, as coach preached by our entire body of work. Those close to the program know we haven't even reached our full potential yet, so we are really excited about this coming game obviously and next season moving forward."
The two schools have never met previously, and Houston is 1-1 all-time in bowl games versus SEC opponents.