Houston's magical season under first-year coach Tom Herman ended with a new peak as the Cougars toppled Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Conference perceptions are shaped during the postseason. Rightly or wrongly, bowl records are one of the main data points used to discredit or argue on behalf of a certain league. For the American Athletic Conference, the 2015–16 bowl circuit was shaping up as a harsh reckoning.
The AAC had informally distinguished itself as the conference existing between the Group of Five and Power 5 in the FBS food chain, but its regular season success was being obscured by postseason failures. Temple fell to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. Cincinnati got crushed by San Diego State in the Hawai’i Bowl. South Florida couldn’t keep up with Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl. The AAC carried a 1–6 bowl record into the final day of 2015.
No. 18 Houston’s 38–24 win over No. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl on Thursday gives the conference a trump card in any debate that turns toward bowl track records. The AAC may have watched six of its best teams lose to squads from other leagues this postseason, but its best team showed up on the big stage.
The Cougars completely shut down Florida State’s best player—and one of the best in the country. Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook, who entered Thursday rested and healthier than he had been for most of the season, registered only 11 yards on 10 carries in the first half and finished with 33 yards on 18 carries. In the seven games in which he logged at least 19 carries during the regular season, Cook registered at least 130 yards. This was a stunning performance from Houston’s run defense, which led the American in yards allowed per carry but had yet to face a back as formidable as Cook. The Cougars clogged running lanes and repeatedly hit the true sophomore before he could use his potent combination of speed and power to explode for big gains.
With Cook contained, Florida State needed more production from quarterback Sean Maguire. But Maguire briefly left the game in the first quarter with a lower left leg injury, and he seemed limited when he returned with a massive lump of tape wrapped around his ankle (backup Everett Golson did not travel to Atlanta due to personal reasons). Maguire threw for nearly 400 yards, but he needed 44 attempts to do it and tossed four interceptions. The result? A Seminoles offense that entered Thursday ranked 19th nationally in Football Outsiders offensive S&P+, 18th in yards per play and 13th in points per drive fell behind by 18 points at the half and couldn’t come all the way back in the second half.
Even with Cook’s ineffectiveness and minus-4 turnover margin, the Seminoles might have been able to eke out a win had they done a better job defending Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. The junior carved up Florida State’s secondary with his arm (25 of 41 for 238 yards with a touchdown) and gashed its front seven with his legs (67 yards with two touchdowns). Ward got Houston on the board early with a seven-yard touchdown run in which he was not touched by a Seminoles defender, and they gifted him another score with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter by failing to account for wide receiver Chance Allen, who pranced into the end zone to give the Cougars a 14-point lead they wouldn’t surrender. Allen recorded another receiving touchdown on a play of more complexity and schematic flair two quarters earlier, a 20-yard reverse pass from receiver Demarcus Ayers
Afterward, Ward celebrated the win by making a snow angel in the confetti strewn about the Georgia Dome field.
Despite the loss, Florida State should feel optimistic about its future. This was billed as a rebuilding year for the Seminoles after they had 11 players selected in the 2015 NFL draft, including starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston—and a record 29 players selected over the last three years—and returned only 11 starters. Yet Florida State still won 10 games and suffered only one defeat to an inferior opponent, on a crazy blocked field goal return.
The Seminoles will retool and, with underclassmen like safety Derwin James and Cook returning, enter 2016 ready to challenge No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. One priority this off-season will be to settle on a starting quarterback between Maguire, redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and four-star recruit Malik Henry.
However it shakes out, there’s plenty of talent coming back on both sides of the ball, and coach Jimbo Fisher has proven he knows how to deploy talent in the right ways. So does Fisher’s counterpart Thursday, Tom Herman.
When grading coaching hires, the best course is to wait several years. But no more time is needed to assess Houston’s decision last December to pluck Herman from Ohio State. With no prior head coaching experience, Herman improved the Cougars’ win total from eight to 13, led them to victories over three Power 5 programs (Louisville, Vanderbilt and Florida State) and the No. 18 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. If not for a three-point loss to UConn on Nov. 21 in which Ward was injured, Houston would have gone undefeated and possibly garnered consideration for a playoff berth. If the Cougars thought Herman could offer a bit of improvement on the eight wins they managed in Tony Levine’s final season, that was a vast underestimation.
But Houston didn’t just prove it was the best team in the Group of Five by winning its conference and knocking off one of the nation’s top programs in a New Year’s Six bowl. It assembled a banner 2016 recruiting class featuring three prospects rated in the top 170 of the Scout 300 and one of the best defensive tackles in the country. It bolstered its candidacy to join the Big 12, should that conference decide to expand at some point. It coined a catchy hashtag to grab the attention of college football fans who weren’t watching the Cougars roll over AAC teams. It gained untold national exposure thanks to a silly promise involving a Houston-based music artist. Herman was behind it all.
For Houston fans, there’s a bittersweet subtext to the program’s rise. Herman may not be around for long. He was linked to several jobs over the last couple of months, and his return for the 2016 season was not ensured until after the Cougars gave him a big pay raise. Even though Houston has shown it’s willing to pay its coach a salary in line with a Power 5 job, it seems only a matter of time before Herman is lured away by another program.
In the meantime, he can keep Houston on a positive trajectory while proving his coaching chops in the AAC, with the occasional shot against a heavyweight like Florida State. After watching the Cougars play Thursday, the team they’ll face to open next season, playoff participant Oklahoma, probably won’t take them for granted.