Houston got its money’s worth with Tom Herman in year one. The Cougars went 12-1, shut out Vanderbilt, dominated Navy, won the suddenly strong American Athletic Conference, earned the coveted Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six bowls, and retained Herman when plenty of alluring jobs were available. It helped very much that he had a ready-made quarterback in Greg Ward Jr., who gave opposing defensive coordinators night sweats.
Meanwhile, Florida State continued its dominant ways. Since the 2013 season began, the ‘Noles are 37-3, and despite a fluke loss to Georgia Tech, this year’s team is probably better than the one that made the inaugural College Football Playoff last season. Combine a dominant defense with one of the nation’s best running backs in Dalvin Cook, and 10-2 comes pretty easily.
Unfortunately, one of the teams will have to play without one of its leaders: Seminole quarterback Everett Golson‘s college football career is over after it was announced he did not travel to Atlanta and will instead go home to mourn a death in the family.
There’s no question: the Seminoles will pose the stiffest challenge defensively that the Cougars will have faced in 2015, ranking ninth in defensive S&P+ and allowing just 15.8 points per game, the nation’s fifth-fewest.
Fortunately for Houston, they boast Ward, one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers, at quarterback. Ward is a game-changer, with a solid arm and legs capable of turning nothing into anything. Herman, coach of such extraordinary mobile quarterbacks as Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, inherited a deadly weapon in Ward and has used his abilities to devastating effect: the junior quarterback has run and thrown for 8.2 yards per touch and 35 touchdowns.
He’ll have to lead the Cougars if they want to upset the ‘Noles. Herman, an excellent game planner, certainly faced a similar battle in 2014 getting Ohio State’s offense ready for Alabama and they answered the bell. He’ll welcome the return of running back Kenneth Farrow, whose 220-lb. frame can fight for yards between the tackles. He earned 5.13 yards per carry against Vanderbilt, the best defense he faced. but the ‘Noles’ line has been stout against the run, holding ten of its twelve foes to 4.23 yards per carry or fewer. Ward and Farrow will have to work to open things up for each other.
If you’re Florida State, and you need to neutralize an explosive offense that can score quickly, don’t overthink it. Cook leads the Power Five in yards per carry at 7.86. Houston’s defense has posted decent numbers against opposing rushers (worst day was a 3.93 yards per carry performance against Memphis) but hasn’t faced a back anywhere near Cook’s caliber yet. Florida State hasn’t been shy about using him on the back half of the season (22, 21, 15, and 26 carries in the last four games) and they should make Houston prove they can slow him down (they probably can’t).
While the ‘Noles all be missing Golson, Sean Maguire has proven a worthy signal-caller in his absence when Golson was hurt or struggling, stepping in to complete 62% of his passes for nine scores and just two picks, and he has a plethora of receiving options. (Three different Seminoles have caught 50 or more passes in 2015.) The ‘Noles should be plenty capable of grabbing yards to support Cook, but Florida State need not get too cute in this one.
FOR ALL THE PEACHES
But as we often see in bowl games, it’s not the size of the peach in the fight, it’s the size of the pit in the peach. Florida State fans are not enthused about drawing a non-Power Five foe for the second time in four seasons, and Houston cannot wait to prove itself against the nation’s elite.
Even with Ward’s incredible improvisational ability, I can’t see Houston hanging with Florida State’s roster stocked with four- and five-star guys. But the ‘Noles better not sleep or they could spend a lot of time chasing Ward from behind.