For all the talk of a coaching carousel this December, one coach may have shaken things up the most by staying put.
Tom Herman again proved that he is increasingly knocking on the door of the coaching elite, as his Houston squad walloped and out-maneuvered Florida State in an impressive 38-24 Peach Bowl romp.
The most surprising aspect of this Atlanta ambush: Little about the way the Coogs prevailed made this game feel like the upset it certainly was.
Houston absolutely matched the Noles in the trenches. A defensive line that had been solid and nothing more against the run shut down Dalvin Cook for under two yards per carry. The UH secondary picked off Sean Maguire four times, including a game-clinching interception that sealed Herman’s Gatorade bath. Demarcus Ayers was easily the best skill-position player on the field for the duration of the game.
The Cougars also had to do everything as frontrunners, an unexpected pole position for the eight-point underdogs. Houston stormed out to a 21-3 advantage on the back of some FSU turnovers. The Noles responded at various points in the second half, truly pushing Houston and making for some nervous moments in H-Town.
Herman’s offensive play calls were on point at every critical juncture of Thursday afternoon’s contest. He maximized backup Kyle Postma’s adequate rushing ability to catch FSU off guard on a late touchdown drive. This is Herman’s greatest skill, reaffirmed for a second straight season in a big-time bowl setting. He marries the motivational and organizational skills of a CEO-style head coach — his players go to the mat for him — with the nuts and bolts of great offensive schemes. His play calls somehow confound defenses and make total sense in immediate hindsight.
That marriage always highlights Greg Ward Jr.’s versatility, making for a shape-shifting offense that erases many talent deficiencies. Ward added some serious 2016 Heisman juice by accounting for 300 yards and three scores against a flashy and fast Florida State front despite missing a couple drives. When the Seminoles started keying on him, what did Ward’s coach do? Herman allowed his players to have some fun, digging into his bag of tricks for an early score that allowed the Cougars to truly seize control of the game.
Tom Herman: Peachy play selection. #PeachBowl Via @ClippitTV https://t.co/716hQ9jfuq
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) December 31, 2015
This was a stamp of validity not just on UH’s season, but also on the New Year’s Six itself.
We wrote that this Peach Bowl had an opportunity to define the Group of Five dynamic in these prestige games, which often were crapshoots with “mid majors” during the BCS era. Those concerns aren’t erased, but they have been eased. The Cougars were every bit FSU’s equal and more on Thursday afternoon. That’s a positive sign for college football in general.
The Cougs’ triumph also added true weight to what had been a regionalized accomplishment. It was fair to question Houston’s schedule and the AAC’s true quality after some stumbles by the league’s top squads down the stretch and a rough bowl season to date. Houston’s best win away from home was Louisville. Now, the Cougars are only the fourth team to beat the Noles in three years, and they might finish in the top 10.
That’s the state of bliss Tom Herman and UH enjoy right now. This is a program well positioned to win big under Herman, be it to move conferences if realignment heats up again or to dominate a burgeoning AAC.
The spotlight will only get brighter for Herman and his richly-deserved new contract.
Houston’s next game? The 2016 season opener against Oklahoma at NRG Stadium, about five miles from UH’s campus. After an impressive Peach Bowl win, the Cougars won’t surprise anyone.