On Jan. 1, 2013, Florida State crushed Northern Illinois 31–10 in the Orange Bowl. That game was a glaring mismatch between one team loaded with NFL prospects (the Seminoles) and another that stacked wins against soft competition in the Mid-American Conference (the Huskies). The disparities in talent and athleticism were clear, and Northern Illinois was completely outclassed.
It’s possible this year’s Peach Bowl could unfold in similar fashion as on paper it pits similar programs. But Houston seems more capable of punching above its weight and at least pushing Florida State. Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leads an explosive offense, and the Cougars should be able to contain the Seminoles’ attack if they can slow star running back Dalvin Cook. That’s much easier said than done, so Houston may be best suited to pull the upset if this turns into a shootout. Either way, don’t expect Florida State to roll over the Cougars, like it did Northern Illinois three years ago.
Points of interest
1. Dalvin Cook had some time to rest
It was hard to tell just by watching Cook that he was playing through ankle and hamstring injuries. That’s because despite those maladies he still led the ACC in total rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry (minimum 50 carries) even though he missed a game.
Cook’s staggering production wasn’t enough to earn him an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony (he finished seventh in the voting). While he said earlier this month that the snub won’t provide more motivation for 2016, according to the Palm Beach Post, Cook can put an exclamation point Thursday on a season that probably should have received more attention from voters.
With more than a month between Florida State’s blowout of Florida and the Peach Bowl, Cook should be in better condition than he was for much of this season. That’s bad news for a Houston defense that ranks 43rd nationally in rushing S&P+ but that, to its credit, limited one of the American Athletic Conference’s top rushers, Temple star Jahad Thomas, to 69 yards on 19 carries in the conference championship game. Still, Cook might be the best back in the country, and the fact that he’s finally rested doesn’t bode well for Houston’s chances of stopping him.
2. Greg Ward Jr. against Florida State’s defense
Ward is the perfect triggerman for first-year coach Tom Herman’s spread offense. This season the junior helped the Cougars average 40.6 points per game and rank 31st in the country in Football Outsiders offensive S&P+ ratings. Ward is so difficult to contain because he’s a true dual threat: He averaged 7.6 yards per carry and threw for nearly 2,600 yards while posting a 68.1% completion rate.
Of course, Ward put up those numbers against comparatively soft defenses in the AAC, and he has yet to face an opponent with as much size and athleticism as Florida State. In their secondary alone, the Seminoles trot out a projected top-10 draft pick (Jalen Ramsey) and a true freshman who can bench press 400 pounds and makes leaping one-handed catches look easy (Derwin James). Ward is a savvy playmaker who can outrun pass rushers when all else fails, but finding the end zone against Florida State won’t be easy.
3. Tom Herman’s coaching chops on display
How many coaches have had a better 2015 than Herman? He helped Ohio State overcome injuries to its two top quarterbacks to win the national championship in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff in January. Then this fall he led Houston to a conference championship and a New Year’s Six bowl berth in his first season as a head coach. And he is in the process of assembling a talented recruiting class featuring three four-star prospects and one of the nation’s top defensive tackles. Oh yeah, Herman also got paid because Houston knew it needed to do something to keep him from leaving for another job.
He can make himself an even more coveted coaching candidate next off-season by notching a win against the Seminoles. The Cougars already have beaten two Power 5 programs (Louisville and Vanderbilt) this season, but an upset of Florida State would trump everything else they’ve accomplished. If Herman pulls it off, it will serve as the clearest display of his coaching ability.
Houston doesn’t have the athletes across the board to hang with the Seminoles, but Herman can help mitigate that disadvantage with his tactical acumen. That said, there’s no shortage of coaching talent on the opposite sideline in Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher.
Burning question: Can Houston contain Cook?
No, the Cougars cannot stop Cook. What they can do is limit him to the point that they force Florida State quarterback Sean Maguire to win the game with his arm. If the Seminoles move the chains every time Cook touches the ball—which isn’t unreasonable, considering he averages nearly eight yards per carry—the Cougars are toast. But if they can slow down Cook even a little bit, it could force Florida State to lean on a passer who failed to beat out Everett Golson in the preseason and then got benched during the season. When Maguire has played, he hasn’t hurt the Seminoles—he’s set to compete for the starting job in 2016—but Florida State would rather pick up easy yards on the ground with Cook than have to extend drives through the air.
X-factor: Florida State safety Derwin James
This is James’s first year of college football, but the safety is already considered one of the nation’s players at his position. James finished second on Florida State with 77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, he shoves offensive lineman out of his way like tackle dummies and ProFootballFocus rated him the nation’s top freshman last month. He is the type of player who can extinguish scoring opportunities by making plays you don’t expect him to.
In Ward, Houston has a dynamic thrower and runner calling the shots, but James gives Florida State a destructive force on the other side of the ball to counter.
13: Houston can notch 13 wins in a single season for the second time this decade. The last time the Cougars won 13 games, their final victory of the season came in January 2012 against Penn State in the TicketCity Bowl, less than a month after Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M. It looks like Houston will keep its coach for at least one more season this time around.
Houston may be able to score enough to keep things interesting, but don’t expect much success slowing Cook. The Seminoles sophomore should go off for at least 150 yards and a touchdown or two. His production, coupled with the likelihood Florida State will be able to defend the Cougars more effectively than most of the teams Houston faced this season, points to a double-digit win for the Seminoles. The Cougars could edge Florida State if Ward gets loose for a few big plays, but even that may not matter in the end. While Houston is better equipped to beat the Seminoles than Northern Illinois was a few years ago, the scoring margin may not be much different.