#18 Houston v. #9 Florida State
Georgia Dome — Atlanta, GA
December 31, 2015 — 12:00 pm Eastern (ESPN)
Why You Should Watch
After years of waiting to see if a mid-major could break into the top 12 of the BCS standings, the new automatic Access Bowl provisions guarantees an chance for the top Group of Five champion to test itself against a major challenger. There’s nothing quite like the chance to see a Cinderella story unfold in real time, and the first of the New Year’s Six bowls provides this year’s opportunity to watch the best of the second-tier FBS schools take on a top-flight Power Five school. This year the Peach Bowl serves as the venue for the American Athletic Conference champion to face a team that has competed for the national championship each of the past two seasons.
Several storylines will unfold simultaneously in the Georgia Dome. Houston went 8-1 against a deep AAC field, adding wins over Louisville and Vanderbilt for good measure, to enter the Peach Bowl with a chance at the second 13-win season in the past five years. Should the Cougars win this game, the fact that Tom Herman will be back for a second season as head coach will position them as a potential mid-major dynasty in the making. Of course, they have to play a Florida State team that is bitter about having to face a Group of Five school for the second time in four years in a major bowl game. The Seminoles have not been in a non-championship/playoff bowl game since they beat Northern Illinois in the 2013 Orange Bowl, and they’ll be motivated to show they were too much for a mid-major to handle…
What Each Team Brings to the Table
Other than an inexplicable loss to UConn in late November, Houston was absolutely perfect in Tom Herman’s first season as a head coach. The offense was expectedly dominant, with Greg Ward Jr. leading a top-12 scoring offense by throwing for 2500 yards and rushing for 1000. The Cougars were even more dangerous on the ground than they were through the air, as Kenneth Farrow nearly joined Ward as a 1000-yard rusher. Putting up over 40 points and nearly 500 yards per game, Houston brings a multifaceted attack to Atlanta.
The defense was just as strong, holding teams under three touchdowns per game. They were stronger against the run than the pass, though an opportunistic secondary was as prone to nab an interception (17 on the year) as allow a big play. Only two teams in the country had a better turnover margin, as Houston finished the year averaging +1.31 turnovers per game. Where the defense fell short was when teams managed to reach the red zone; Houston’s opponents scored over 90 percent of the times they reached the Cougar 20.
The Cougars also bring top-40 special teams units to the Georgia Dome. Houston blocked two kicks and a punt this year, finished third in punt return defense, and didn’t allow a return touchdown so far this year. Meanwhile Brandon Wilson ranked in the top 20 in kick returns, taking two to the house, while Demarcus Ayers took one punt all the way and finished 22nd in punt return average. And despite punter Logan Piper’s low average distance, the Cougars still ranked in the top 40 in net punting thanks to a strong coverage unit.
Florida State Seminoles
Despite what happened in his final game at last year’s Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, Florida State still missed 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston this season. The offense lost nearly two points and 20 yards per game in the transition from Winston to transfer quarterback Everett Golson, who struggled after the move from Notre Dame and ceded the starting gig to Sean Maguire. The combination of the two passers translated to solid top-50 figures in both points and yards per game, though between the two of them the team averaged less than 250 passing yards per game.. Interestingly, despite the dominance of lead tailback Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles ranked just 56th nationally in rushing yards per game.
Where Florida State is even more dangerous is on defense. FSU held opponents under 16 points per game, conceding no more than 24 points win or lose. Defensive end Demarcus Walker finished the regular season tied for eighth nationally with 10.5 sacks and added 15.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, leading a front seven that allowed just over 140 yards per game. The experienced secondary was led by Lamarcus Brutus’ three interceptions. The one place they fall flat is when opponents hit third and fourth down, as though the Seminoles become complacent when their foes’ backs are against the wall.
Interestingly, while Kermit Whitfield ranked 11th nationally in kick return average, the Seminoles were abysmal in punt returns, finishing 115th in the country with fewer than four years per return. Cason Beatty was one of the best punters in the country, averaging 44.5 yards per punt as the coverage team finished 19th in FBS in net punting. And junior Roberto Aguayo remains one of the top placekickers in college as well, joining Deion Sanders as just the second Seminole in FSU history to earn first-team All-American honors in three straight seasons.
What is Likely to Happen
Unlike NIU, Florida State’s opponent in the Orange Bowl three years ago, Houston is a strong foe in all three phases of the game who needed no last-minute luck to claim their big-time opportunity. Pretty much every major sportsbook has the Seminoles pegged as one-touchdown favorites against the Cougars, though Houston will be plenty motivated after missing out on its BCS Buster opportunity four years ago. The Cougars had a better average scoring margin than FSU, and did it against a schedule that Sagarin said was only 35 spots weaker than the one faced in the ACC by Jimbo Fisher’s crew.
It all comes down to how motivated Florida State is to play another mid-major team. Few of the players from that Orange Bowl blowout remain on this year’s roster, so it isn’t like that should be too significant. Rather, what will matter most is that Houston is an opportunistic team that protects the football, skillfully snags turnovers from opponents, and is more prolific (while being almost as good defensively) as their foes in Atlanta. Ward’s dual-threat ability should allow the Houston quarterback to outduel his counterpart Maguire, as both teams raise one another’s scoring defense average. This could look a lot like last year’s Fiesta Bowl, with Houston taking an early lead before Florida State starts to claw back the game. The Cougars might need some late-game heroics, but they should manage to pull off the upset — both against the spread and on the scoreboard.
Houston 30, Florida State 28
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