2015 Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl
Thursday, December 31st
12:00 PM ET on ESPN
#18 Houston Cougars 12-1 (7-1 AAC)
Houston is the big winner of the college football season, as they were able to retain their head coach Tom Herman, who was an extremely hot commodity on the coaching market for many high-profile positions across college football.
After the Cougars closed the 2015 regular season with a 12-1 record, which included a 24-13 victory over #22 Temple in the American Conference Championship, it is no secret why Herman was so highly sought after prior to signing a contract extension to stay at the school. In my opinion, it is inevitable that Herman will eventually leave the Cougars, as it is only a matter of time before a school in the Power Five makes him an offer that he can’t refuse. Until then, Houston will continue to be one of the best non-Power Five teams in the nation with an explosive squad on both sides of the football.
So why were the Cougars able to have a successful season at such a small school? A large part of it had to do with the effectiveness and efficiency of the offense. The Cougars are ranked 43rd in the nation in passing yards at 247.4 per game, 13th in rushing yards at 239.5 per game, and 12th in the country in points per game, as they average 40.6 per contest.
At quarterback, Greg Ward Jr. has been fantastic behind center for the Cougars. He has completed 68% of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns to only five interceptions. There are a bevy of receivers that Ward Jr. throws to, but 5’10” junior Demarcus Ayers has emerged as the premier pass-catcher in the offense. He has caught 89 balls this year for 1,140 yards and six touchdowns. There are six other players outside of Ayers with at least 115 yards receiving or more, but when Ward Jr. is not looking Ayers’ direction, junior Chance Allen has been the next best target with 52 catches for 693 yards and four touchdowns for the Cougars.
As explosive as the passing attack has been for Houston, the running game is the foundation of everything that they do on offense. Ward Jr. has been spectacular throwing the ball, but it is quite possible that he has been even better rushing the ball, as he leads the team with 1,041 yards rushing with 19 touchdowns. When considering that he’s the quarterback, those rushing statistics really do jump off of the page. As Ward Jr. has received a great deal of the attention and recognition for this offense, starting running back Kenneth Farrow has flown a bit under the radar, considering how productive he has been this season. Farrow has 949 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns this season, and has combined with Ward Jr. at the quarterback position to form a dynamic duo for the nation’s 13th-ranked rushing offense.
Defensively, Houston does not receive nearly the credit that they deserve. The offense steals all of the headlines with their high-powered attack that has made head coach Tom Herman famous, but the Cougars defense is also a big reason why the team is where they’re at today. Houston is 53rd nationally in total defense, but they have only allowed 20.5 points per game, which is tied for 19th in the country. Bend but don’t break is the name of the game for the Cougars, as they have seemingly come up with big stops time and time again throughout the course of the season.
#9 Florida State Seminoles 10-2 (6-2 ACC)
Florida State began this season with question marks surrounding the quarterback position following the departure of Jameis Winston to the NFL. Coach Jimbo Fisher had a decision to make on offense between quarterback Everett Golson, who entered the fold as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, or Sean Maguire, a veteran who backed up Winston for each of the prior two seasons.
Initially, the Seminoles coaching staff settled on Golson as the starting quarterback. However, for one reason or another, he never seemed quite as comfortable within the offensive system as many were accustomed to seeing when he starred at Notre Dame in each of the past three seasons. Sure, Golson limited the turnovers, which was a large reason as to why he lost his starting job with the Irish and eventually transferred to Florida State. However, the solid numbers on the periphery throughout most of this season (1,778 yards, 67% completions, 11 touchdowns to only three interceptions) do not tell the full story, as Golson looked hesitant on passes deep down the field, while opting to check downs in the passing game more often than he should. With the offense becoming stagnant at times in the middle portion of the conference schedule, head coach Jimbo Fisher ultimately made the move to bench Everett Golson in favor of Maguire for the remainder of the season.
Now, with Everett Golson home from the bowl game due to a personal issue, it will once again be Maguire’s team entering the match-up against Houston. In portions of seven games this season, the junior quarterback has completed 62% of his passes for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns to only two interceptions. The numbers here do not necessarily tell the full story, as Maguire has shown a greater grasp of the offense than Golson when he has been under the center. Additionally, he has displayed a proven ability to spread the ball out to a variety of his playmakers on the outside, who seem more apt to making plays when Maguire is commanding the offense. The big three of Kermit Whitfield, Travis Rudolph, and Jesus “Bobo” Wilson have combined for 155 receptions for 2,011 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The trio will be the group to watch in the bowl game, as the ball has been spread out rather evenly between all three of them on offense throughout the regular season schedule.
While some would speculate that the quarterback controversy this season has held back the offense to a degree, all would be in agreement that the Seminoles would not have won 10 games without the premier rushing ability of their sophomore tailback, Dalvin Cook. Cook was sensational once again this season, and was the glue that held together the offense while the team battled to establish an identity on offense. He fought through a sore hamstring throughout much of this season to put up some of the best statistics on the ground in college football, which to this date remain largely unnoticed by the national media due to the play of Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
Cook rushed for 1,658 yards in 2015 with 18 touchdowns, while averaging 7.9 yards per carry. There were a few of games this season, namely South Florida, Wake Forest, and Miami, where Cook made game-changing plays that swung momentum heavily in favor of the Seminoles en route to victory. He is one of the best athletes in college football, and a substantial reason why the ‘Noles were able to win 10 regular season games despite the uncertainty at times surrounding the Golson/Maguire quarterback controversy.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Seminoles have been stout throughout most of the season, despite the fact that they have sometimes taken some unwarranted chances in critical situations that have come back to haunt them. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly has been much maligned at times by the local media in Tallahassee and by the fans, but quite frankly, his ability to keep the unit afloat with injuries to key positions has been crucial to the 10 win regular season for the Seminoles.
With that being said, it’s pretty easy to keep the band together when you have athletes all over the field. From safety Derwin James to sure-fire top 15 prospect in junior corner Jalen Ramsey, Florida State has greatly benefited from outstanding recruiting year-in and year-out by coach Fisher and his staff. The Seminoles ranked 16th in the country in total defense, allowing 327.7 yards per game. Additionally, the ‘Noles were slotted fifth nationally in scoring defense, as they allowed only 15.8 points per game in the 2015 regular season.
This is a very tough game to predict, because both teams will have their talented athletes well-coached and put in the best position to win the game. While Houston has looked impressive in every game they have played this season, save for the one loss to Connecticut when starting quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was injured, I have a hard time believing that they will be able to keep up for four quarters with all of the four and five star talent that the Seminoles will have on both sides of the football. This will also be the first time since the opening weeks of the season that we will see a fully healthy Dalvin Cook at running back for the Seminoles, which is a scary thought considering how he has decimated opposing defenses at less than 100% with the sore hamstring that he has had for most of the season. There will be tons and tons of scoring in this year’s Peach Bowl, but at the end of the game after everything shakes out, I believe that Florida State will come away with the victory.
#9 Florida State 41
#18 Houston 35
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