The New Year’s Six bowl slate kicks off on Dec. 31 with an intriguing matchup between Florida State and Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Seminoles and Cougars start a huge day for college football fans on Thursday, as playoff games in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl begin later that afternoon.
First-year coach Tom Herman guided Houston to a 12-1 mark during the regular season and the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 conferences. Herman was one of the top hires last offseason and quickly showed why he is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks. The Cougars improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015, defeated two Power 5 opponents in Louisville and Vanderbilt and claimed the American Athletic Conference title with a 24-13 victory over Temple. Herman’s background on offense was also showcased in 2015, as quarterback Greg Ward was a breakout star, and the Cougars averaged 40.6 points per game.
Florida State was expected to take a small step back in the win column after a significant amount of roster turnover after the 2014 season. The Seminoles had 11 players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and returned only 10 starters from last year’s team. Despite the overall youth on both sides of the ball and uneven quarterback play at times, coach Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to its fourth consecutive season of at least 10 wins. The Seminoles lost only two games in the regular season – a crazy, last-second defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech and a 23-13 loss at Clemson on Nov. 7. The future looks bright for Fisher’s team in 2016, and a win over Houston would only add to the hype of what could be another playoff run next season.
Florida State and Houston have met 16 previous times, with the Cougars owning a 12-2-2 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1978.
Peach Bowl: Florida State vs. Houston (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Running back was one of the nation’s deepest positions for talent this season, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was an Athlon Sports first-team All-American after rushing for 1,658 yards and 18 scores in 11 games. Cook’s totals are even more impressive when you consider injuries to his hamstring and ankle forced him to miss one game and limited his workload in October. The sophomore is the catalyst for Florida State’s offense and Houston’s chances of knocking off the Seminoles revolve around its ability to keep Cook in check. The Cougars led the American Athletic Conference in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 116 rushing yards per game. Six Houston defenders earned all-conference honors this season, including linebackers Elandon Roberts (132 stops) and Steven Taylor (nine sacks) and defensive lineman B.J. Singleton (20 tackles). No team has finished a matchup against Houston this season averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have been stingy on the ground all year, but Florida State’s young and improving offensive line, combined with the explosiveness and speed of running back Dalvin Cook will be their toughest assignment of the 2015 season.
2. Stopping Houston QB Greg Ward
Houston suffered its lone loss (UConn) of the 2015 season in the only game quarterback Greg Ward was unable to start due to injury. Ward showed signs of promise in 2014 but has thrived under Herman’s coaching this year. The junior completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the team with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 scores in the regular season. But Ward isn’t a one-man show on offense. The Cougars’ ground attack is anchored by running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, and receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 catches) is a big-play threat on the outside. How will Florida State defend Ward? Will the Seminoles keep a spy around the line of scrimmage to force Ward to stay in the pocket? Florida State’s defense showed marked improvement on the stat sheet this season, lowering its yards per play mark allowed from 5.5 in 2014 to 4.7 in 2015. A big reason for the improvement on defense was the development of the defensive line, which figures to be a handful against a Houston offensive line that experienced its share of injuries and allowed 26 sacks this season.
3. Standout Defensive Backs
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl might feature one of the postseason’s best collections of talent in the defensive backfield. Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is one of the nation’s best at his position, and the junior is joined by a standout freshman at safety (Derwin James) and an underrated cornerback (Marquez White) on the other side. Houston’s secondary ranked No. 68 nationally in pass efficiency defense this season, but the Cougars boast three all-conference selections. Safety Trevon Stewart recorded 72 tackles and two interceptions this season, while cornerback William Jackson III picked off three passes and broke up 21 throws in his direction. How will the standout defensive backs affect the passing attack for both teams? Florida State has connected on only 14 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season, but Sean Maguire has settled into the starting job over the final five games. Maguire has been careful with the ball (two picks on 145 attempts) and that play has to continue against an opportunistic Houston secondary (17 picks). When Maguire throws, expect Kermit Whitfield and Travis Rudolph to be the primary targets. Houston isn’t as deep as Florida State at receiver, and the Cougars need Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar to win one-on-one battles, especially if Demarcus Ayers is held in check by Ramsey or White.
This is a dangerous matchup for Florida State. Houston has nothing to lose in this game, and the pressure is on the Seminoles to avoid an upset loss. From a matchup standpoint, Florida State has several advantages. The Seminoles’ defensive front should create a few headaches for Houston’s offensive line, and the speed and athleticism on defense should help to contain quarterback Greg Ward. Florida State’s offensive line is young, but this unit has cleared rushing lanes for running back Dalvin Cook all season. The Cougars need to keep Cook in check and force the Seminoles to win this game with Maguire’s arm. Also, the turnover margin will be critical to monitor. Houston is one of the best in the nation at plus-17, while Florida State is plus-four. The edge in talent rests with the Seminoles, but the Cougars keep this one close deep into the fourth quarter. Cook and Maguire make just enough plays for Florida State to earn its 11th win of 2015 and build momentum for a promising 2016 campaign.
Prediction: Florida State 31, Houston 24
(Credit to @UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of QB Greg Ward)