Houston-Florida St. Preview
(AP) - Florida State has gotten used to playing for national championships.
Jimbo Fisher considers the Peach Bowl a good consolation prize.
After coming up short in the national race, the No. 9 Seminoles will face up-and-coming 14th-ranked Houston in Thursday's game at the Georgia Dome.
Fisher said it's quite an accomplishment considering the inexperience of his team, which had to replace many of the stalwarts from last year's squad that reached the College Football Playoff on the heels of a national championship run in 2013.
"We've had a tremendous season," Fisher said. "This very young football team has grown all year, gotten better and better and better. To get to a New Year's Six bowl is a great honor for these kids. A tremendous accomplishment."
It's certainly an accomplishment for Houston, which earned a spot in a major bowl as the top-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences. The Cougars won the American Athletic Conference, beating then-No. 20 Temple 24-13 in the championship game Dec. 5.
"The guys worked really hard over the last 11 or 12 months to get here," rookie coach Tom Herman said. "As rewarding as winning our conference championship was, the knowledge that the reward extends farther into a New Year's Six bowl game is even that much more gratifying."
Florida State (10-2, No. 9 CFP) won its first six games and was in the national championship mix until a shocking 22-16 loss Oct. 24 at Georgia Tech - the Yellow Jackets' only ACC win. The Seminoles were beaten by a 78-yard return of a blocked field goal on the final play of the game.
The other loss was a lot more understandable. Fisher's team fell 23-13 on Nov. 7 at now-No. 1 Clemson, which went on to capture the ACC title and earn the top seed in the playoff, joined by Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
"That (Georgia Tech game) was such a tough loss, and a very dynamic way to do it," Fisher said. "We could have pouted, felt sorry for ourselves, or we could learn from it and grow. I think we did.
"The second half of the season, we played our most complete football, our best football. That's a tribute to our seniors, their leadership, and our young guys for buying into the culture of playing champ football.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys buying into that."
Herman, who came to Houston (12-1, No. 18 CFP) after serving on Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State, had to persuade his team he could take them to a higher level. The Cougars went 21-17 the last three seasons under Tony Levine, settling for a pair of minor bowl games.
An early victory at Louisville helped to win over his skeptical players "that this staff and this culture and the way we go about our business might actually work."
The Cougars are led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who has rushed for a team-leading 1,041 yards with 19 touchdowns and passed for 2,590 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. It will be intriguing to see how he performs against the best defense he's seen all year.
Dalvin Cook is the player who makes the Seminoles go, running for 18 touchdowns and setting a school record with 1,658 yards on the ground. The Cougars have been stout against the run, surrendering 116.0 yards per game.
Cook played most of the season with ankle and hamstring injuries, but the recent break has allowed him to heal up. Florida State last played Nov. 28, when it beat then-No. 10 Florida 27-2.
The time off has given the Seminoles a chance to heal after a stretch where they played nine straight weeks.
"We love the game but you need a break sometimes," Cook said. " ... Everybody is moving around good, looking healthy, We've just got to get back sharp."
The Seminoles will stick with Sean Maguire as their starting quarterback. He took over when transfer Everett Golson went down with a head injury, and played well enough to keep the job.
"Sean is definitely the starter going in," Fisher said. "We have two excellent quarterbacks. We feel good about both guys."
Houston will be playing in its first major postseason game since the 1985 Cotton Bowl. Herman will have to make sure his team doesn't get overwhelmed by the spotlight, especially facing one of the nation's most storied programs.
Both coaches say a victory in this game would be an important step toward getting the 2016 season off to a good start, but a victory would probably mean more to Houston.
"It would energize our fan base, it would energize the city of Houston," Herman said. "It would give us another feather in the cap of what is already turning into a pretty good recruiting class."
This will mark the first meeting between these schools since 1978. The Cougars hold a 12-2-2 advantage in the series.
"They're not in a Power Five conference but they beat a lot of Power Five teams and they're as good as anyone in the country. You don't walk out and just win 12 games," Fisher said.