WHO: No. 9 Florida State (10-2) vs. No. 18 Houston (12-1)
WHAT: The 48th Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
WHERE: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia
WHEN: 12:00 pm ET, Dec. 31 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Florida State’s 2015 season may have been a step back from the national championship bar it set the past few years, but the Seminoles are still back in the New Years Six line-up despite filling plenty of hole son defense and switching quarterbacks this season. Dalvin Cook has been the rock for the Florida State offense this season and he should be the key player for Florida State against Houston in the Peach Bowl. Cook rushed for 1,658 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. The sophomore has rushed for at least 100 yards in all but three games this season, and one of those was because he was injured. In the season finale against Florida, Cook went for 183 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 194 yards and a touchdown in a loss at Clemson, a game in which he basically put the entire offense on his back in a 23-13 loss.
Florida State’s defense has not been particularly great this year, but they have been good at holding down opponents from scoring too much. The most points allowed in a game was 24 points, (to Miami). Even in their losses, Florida State held Clemson to 23 points and Georgia Tech to 22 points, and Georgia Tech’s game-winning touchdown came on a bizarre special teams play. Simply put, Florida State’s defense is still a challenge even in a perceived down year. They will, however, be put to the test by Houston.
With first-year head coach Tom Herman at the helm, Houston went 12-1 and won its first American athletic Conference championship. The former Ohio State assistant turned in quite the performance as a head coach by turning quarterback Greg Ward Jr. into a massive dual-threat option. Ward led the Cougars with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns to go with his 2,590 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. The question is whether or not Ward will be able to do it all against Florida State. This is a bit of a different situation compared to Florida State’s last bout against a non-power conference opponent in a big bowl game. Unlike Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois, Houston’s Ward can do some damage through the air if his offensive line protects him. He also has a top target to throw to with Demarcus Ayers (1,140 yards, six touchdowns). Outside of Clemson, Houston may have the best offense Florida State has faced all season.
THE PREDICTION: Florida State 24, Houston 23
With a chance to clinch the AAC West Divison and home-field advantage in the conference championship game, Houston (11-1, 7-1 AAC) was led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr. throwing and running the football to take down No. 15 Navy (9-2, 7-1 AAC), 51-31. Houston will wait to see if it will host Temple or South Florida next week in the conference championship game.
Houston’s gameplan against Navy was simple in philosophy and strategy but masterful in execution. Big plays and well-designed ball-control was the key to the game for Houston. The Cougars rolled up over 500 yards of offense and kept the Navy defense on the field for a majority of the game. That led to some big play opportunities for Houston, and with players with the skill and talent of Ward Jr., Brandon Wilson and Demarcus Ayers, it proved to be too much for Navy to handle for 60 minutes. Wilson rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown and Ayers hauled in 161 yards and a score and even got involved with a passing touchdown in the first half, a 29-yard strike to Steven Dunbar. Considering how much Ward Jr. was forced to play through injury, it was a remarkable effort by Houston against a Navy team that has shown some good defense this season. It just was not there today against the AAC’s most talented offensive team.
Houston converted 15 of 18 third-down attempts, and went two-for-two when they chose to go for it on fourth down. Houston was without a turnover and committed just three penalties.
Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds may have seen his late Heisman Trophy campaign take a dent with the loss, but he may still prove worthy of an invite to New York City for the presentation of the award. Reynolds tied the FBS all-time career touchdown record previously set by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball with his fourth quarter touchdown run. Whether he receives an invite to New York or not, there is no question he is among the classiest of college football players and it was clear he never allowed the Midshipmen to pack it in when Houston started to separate itself from Navy.
Houston will host either Temple or South Florida in the first American Athletic Conference championship game next Saturday, December 5. The game, scheduled to kick off at noon, will see its AAC East representative determined tomorrow when Temple plays Connecticut. If Temple defeats the Huskies in Philadelphia, the Owls will make the trip to Houston for the conference championship game. A loss by Temple and it will be South Florida representing the East thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker over Temple. USF won Thursday night to force Temple to win against UConn to win the division. Houston has not played either AAC East Division contender this season.
Navy is not done this regular season, of course. The Midshipmen will make the trip to Philadelphia for the traditional Army-Navy Game in two weeks. Navy has beaten their rivals from West Point 13 straight times for the longest winning streak in the series.
Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, Houston head coach Tom Herman.
You have to understand one thing about Herman. He is going from one of the most loaded programs in the country at Ohio State to what is a bit of a rebuilding project at Houston. The new head coach of the Cougars brings high expectations after helping the Buckeyes grab the national championship, so he knows what kind of players he needs to win. If one quote from a camp scrimmage is any evidence, Herman does not have that kind of talent at wide receiver on the depth chart in his new football home at Houston.
Maybe that reads a little bit more harshly than it was intended, but it should certainly send a message to the entire receiving unit that whatever has been done so far is not good enough to meet Herman’s expectations.
Houston returns one starting wide receiver from last season, Demarcus Ayers (335 yards and two touchdowns). Houston is lacking in receiver depth but Herman should be able to help solve that through recruiting moving forward.