2015 Peach Bowl Preview; Florida State

After a 12-1 regular season and winning their first ever American Athletic Conference championship, your 18th ranked Houston Cougars travel to Atlanta, Georgia to square off against the 9th ranked Florida State Seminoles in the 48th annual Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Thursday December 31st. Game time at the Georgia Dome is set for 12pm EST and will be televised nationally on ESPN.

When one thinks of Florida State over the past 25 or so years, ok when I think of the Seminoles, the terms that probably comes up more often than not are football royalty and tradition; the national championships (1993, 1999 and 2013), the NFL draft picks (and NFL record 42 first rounder’s), the constant recruiting of four and five-star athletes, Chief Osceola riding in on Renegade to the middle of Doak Campbell Stadium and planting his spear at the 50-yard line. Luckily for Houston fans the hype doesn’t always win games, according to head coach Tom Herman, “The beauty of our game is that doesn’t always win football games,” the first year head coach said during a recent coaches show, “It’s the team that’s the most physical, that plays with the most toughness, passion and purpose for the guy next to him. That’s the team that’s going to have the best chance to win the game, and while I’m sure their players will be ready, I know mine will come game time.”

While the Coogs are playing in their first major bowl game in over 30 years, the ‘Noles are playing in their fourth consecutive BCS/New Year’s Six Bowl game. This season Florida State has won 10 games (to 2 losses) in a so-called “rebuilding year” after losing 11 players to the 2015 NFL draft. In fact, the Seminoles have set an NFL record with 29 players being drafted over the past three seasons. While the conventional thinking may be that the Houston players have more to play for in being a huge underdog, Florida State players (of which only 11 are seniors) are gunning for their 50th win (over the past four seasons) which would set a record for a school coming from a ‘Power 5’ conference (and tying Boise State’s four year run from 2008-11). Of course this is what happens when you put together four top-five recruiting classes in the past five seasons with no let-up in sight. Focusing on the rebuilding theme, the ‘Noles finished the regular season with 29 freshmen playing (15 redshirts and 14 true). Only TCU and Rice finished playing with more with 30 and 31 respectively (via Florida State’s ‘Game Notes’ section).

The definition of coaching is when a team wins with so many underclassmen performing in vital roles, which is exactly what head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff have done not only this season, but over their six seasons in Tallahassee in winning 68 of 81 games including a 29 game win streak from the 2012 ACC championship game through the end of the 2013 season, culminating in winning the 2013 BCS national championship. Florida State’s win streak came to a screeching halt after the first ever play-off game in a semifinal loss to Oregon to end the 2014 season.

 After winning All-conference honors at Salem College at quarterback during the 1985 and 86 seasons in his hometown of Salem, West Virginia, Fisher transferred to Samford in 1987, becoming the Division III Player-of-the-Year after setting the DIII single-season record by tossing 34 touchdowns. After a year in the Arena Football League with the Chicago Bruisers, Fisher set out to make his mark as a coach as he joined his head coach Terry Bowden at Samford as a graduate assistant working with quarterbacks from 1988 through 1990. He became the offensive coordinator for two seasons before joining Bowden at Auburn where he would coach the QB’s from 93 through 98. After coaching at Cincinnati for one season, he joined Nick Saban’s staff at LSU in 2000, helping the Tigers win the 2003 national championship as offensive coordinator before leaving for Florida State in 2007. Fisher became Bobby Bowden’s hand-picked successor and was officially introduced as head coach on January 5th, 2010.

While Randy Sanders has a Co-offensive coordinators role (along with wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey) while also coaching the QB’s, it’s Fisher who still calls the plays in Tallahassee for an offense that averages 32.3 points-per-game to rank them 48th nationally. The Noles average 424.9 yards of total offense (45th); 180.9 rushing (55th) and 244 passing (45th). You can see both Nick Saban’s and Les Miles influence on Fisher’s pro-style scheme, especially in the passing game. You won’t see too much of the short passing game as Fisher likes his QB’s to throw downfield, whether it’s having his QB’s carve up opposing zone defenses over the intermediate portion of the field, or deep via the play-action passing game.

Fisher’s offense is diversified as well as he’ll have his unit line up in “21 personnel” (two running backs, one tight end) on one play, then go with a spread look with three to five receiver sets the next with the QB taking the snap from the shot gun. Much of their play-action game will come when the QB is under center, while they’ll use motion and speed sweeps when in shotgun looks. Sean Maguire (6-foot-3 inches, 220 pounds, RJr.) has been named FSU’s starting QB for the Peach Bowl after starting four of the past five games to end the season for a struggling Everett Golson (6’0, 200, RSr.), who won the job over the pre-season after transferring from Notre Dame. Including starting one game last season (a 23-17 overtime victory against Clemson); Maguire is 4-1 as a starter over the past two seasons and seems to be a better fit for Fisher’s downfield pro passing game as he has a stronger arm and has more patience standing in the pocket in order to go through his progressions in deciphering Fisher’s complex passing schemes. For the season, Maguire has completed 62-percent of his passes (90-for-145) while averaging 161.1 passing yards-per-game with 11 TDs to 3 interceptions, though he averages 206 per game in his four starts while completing 60-percent of his passes, throwing for 6 TDs to only 1 interception. Golson will not make the trip to Atlanta due to personal reasons it was revealed this past weekend.

Maguire can throw on the run and Fisher will have him roll out via bootlegs, but the Sparta, New Jersey product isn’t the most mobile, which could play right into the hands of first year Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. The Coogs “Third Ward Defense” loves to light up or pressure opposing QB’s and Orlando has the personnel to do just that in his 3-4 scheme. While holding opponents to only 20.5 points-per-game (19th), the constant blitzing leads opposing QBs to throw earlier than they want, often leading to turnovers as Houston is THIRD nationally in turnover margin at plus-27 while their 30 total forced turnovers ranks them SIXTH in the nation. Not only is Houston’s secondary (the self-proclaimed “Jack Boyz”) ball hawks in intercepting 17 passes (11th nationally), but the unit as a whole is fast and hard hitting as only four other teams have more than their 13 fumbles gained this season. This will be one of the many ‘game-within-the game’ aspects of this contest as Florida State’s offense has turned the rock over only TEN times the entire season (five interceptions and fumbles each), which ranks them THIRD nationally.

While Houston’s ability to rattle Maguire will help determine who wins the game, the key will be Florida State’s run game, led by all-everything running back Dalvin Cook (5’11, 202, So.) against a Houston rush defense which allows only 116 yards-per-game to rank them 11th nationally. After splitting carries last season as a true freshman, Cook has carried the offense on his sturdy shoulders this year as the Miami, Florida native is third nationally averaging 150.7 yards-per-game. What’s even more incredible is that Cook averages almost a first down each time he rushes, 7.9 yards-per-carry (1,658 yards on 211 carries and 18 TDs in 11 games).

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Cook’s season, in which he’s battled hamstring and ankle injuries throughout the year, but a few come to mind; explosive (averages 38.5 yards per TD), powerful (averages an FBS best 3.65 yards after contact) and elusive (leads the nation with six 50 plus yard rushes and 26 plus-20 yard plays) Smooth and effortless also come to mind as Cook is the total package of speed, power while showing great vision via his cutbacks in the Noles man/zone combo blocking schemes. Cook’s 1,658 rushing yards set the FSU single season record, passing Warrick Dunn’s mark of 1,242 yards in 1995. He’s also the team’s fourth leading receiver with 22 receptions for 218 yards (9.9 yards per catch) with a TD for good measure. According to Fisher he’s also a great all around back as he’ll lead block in many of their 2-back sets for bruising true freshman Jacques Patrick (6’2, 235), who averages 5.1 yards-per-carry himself (315 yards on 62 carries) to go along with 5 TDs.

If Houston’s defense hopes to do something no Florida State opponent has yet to do all season in containing Cook, it will be up the Cougars linebacking core led by inside strongside ‘backer Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) and strongside outside ‘backer Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.). All the two have accomplished this season is to combine for 218 total tackles including 33 tackles-for-loss (17 by Roberts), 15 sacks (9 by Taylor), 10 passes defended (5 each) and 3 interceptions (2 by Taylor). Roberts is second in the nation with 86 solo tackles and would surely be leading by at least 10 (as he’s currently one behind Fish Smithson of Kansas) if not for being ejected early in the first quarter for targeting in the teams’ only loss at UConn. Weakside inside linebacker Mathew Adams (6’0, 230, So.) has only 44 total tackles (26 solo) in 12 games as he’s played sparingly (though more as of late) as Orlando has the unit playing in nickel packages mainly. The other weakside outside spot belongs to Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.), whose added 5 sacks mainly as a ‘hand-on-the-ground’ rush specialist, though he does have the athleticism to drop back in coverage when Orlando calls one of his many zone blitzes as he’s defended four passes and has an interception on the season as well.

While the heart-and-soul of the Houston D is their linebacking core, the unsung heroes are the defensive line. The unit of Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) at the end spots, with B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) in the middle, will have to keep the linebacking unit clean. In other words the D-line must occupy Florida State’s offensive line long enough for the athletic linebackers to shoot the gaps in order to cause havoc behind the line of scrimmage, especially when Roberts and Taylor are called on Double-A gap blitzes, which is often. There isn’t a lot of movement up front via twists and stunts but the unit more than holds its own, especially Malveaux whom has done a suburb job this season at using his 6’6 frame to leverage himself between offensive linemen for 8.5 tackles-for-loss, while Mark leads the unit with 36 total tackles. Singleton adds 3 passes batted down from his spot at the nose while reserve linemen Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) and Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) add 2 fumble recoveries each.

With four of five starters from last season currently on NFL rosters, Florida State’s offensive line has been in flux all season with five different starting combinations (including three different starters at center), mainly due to injuries. The unit that’s started the past three games and is tentatively set to start against the Cougars consists of Roderick Johnson (6’7, 323, So.), Kareem Are (6’6, 334, RJr.), Alec Eberle (6’4, 294, RFr.), Wilson Bell (6’5, 316, RSo.) and Chad Mavety (6’5, 337, RJr.) from left to right tackle. The five average a massive 320.8 pounds across the board to only 280 pounds-per-man to Houston’s front four. FSU’s line has allowed 23 sacks this season (57th) while UH’s defense has 33 sacks which ranks them 22nd nationally. If the pressure gets to be too much, Fisher can go with ‘max protection’ featuring tight ends Ryan Izzo (6’5, 241, RFr.) and Jeremy Kerr (6’6, 266, RSo.) along with fullbacks Freddie Stevenson (6’1, 241, Jr.) and Colton Plante (6’2, 239, Fr.).

IF Orlando can force Fisher to go with his quick passing game because of the pressure, the Noles have plenty to work with in receivers Travis Rudolph (6’1, 186, So.), Kermit Whitfield (5’8, 184, Jr.) and Jesus Wilson (5’10, 185, Jr.). Rudolph is the deep threat and lines up mainly outside at the “X” spot as has 52 receptions for 715 yards with 6 TDs. Though both diminutive in size, both Whitfield and Wilson are as tough as they come as both don’t mind taking shots over the middle on shallow crossers. While both are mainly used as slot receivers, all three are interchangeable and will line up all over the field in order to dictate matchups. Whitfield leads the team with 53 receptions for 742 yards with 6 TDs while Wilson adds 50 for 554 and 2 scores. All three receivers run great combination routes and are especially dangerous via the quick slant over the middle.

Orlando’s philosophy is high risk, high reward as in if the front-7 can’t pressure the QB, the secondary can and will get burned in man coverage. That along with the secondary having major communication issues to start the season led to many high yardage passing games as they allow a whopping 265.3 yards-per-game passing which ranks them 111th nationally. If the Cougars defense can’t pressure Maguire, it’s going to be a long day for William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.) and Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) at corner, along with Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) at safety. Look for Jackson and his nationally leading 24 passes defended (and 3 interceptions) to be locked up with Rudolph outside in man coverage. I’ve listed Wilson at corner where he started the first ten games of the season though he’s started the past two at running back because of depth issues due to injuries. Wilson is a sure tackler in space as he’s tied for fourth with 49 solo tackles though he can be beaten in man coverage, as can Stewart from his free safety spot when he covers slot receivers.

“WorldWide” (Stewart) is more of an in-the-box safety as he adds 9.5 tackles-for-loss (of his 49 solo and 72 total tackles), 6 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and 2 interceptions. Stewart’s aggressiveness leads him to being taken advantage of however by slot receivers who are good route runners. McDonald often plays at single high safety in many of Orlando’s various zone looks and leads the team with four interceptions (and is the school’s all-time leader with 16), to go along with 85 total and 55 solo tackles, good for third on the team in both categories. Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Sr.) plays at the nickel spot and has 47 total tackles, 3 passes defended and an interception.

As good as Cook has been for Florida State this season, they’ve relied on their young defense (and special teams to a smaller extent) to carry them this season. Only four teams have allowed more than their 15.8 points-per-game average this season and the Noles are the only team in the nation not to allow more than 25 points in any one game (and the first since the 2011 Alabama squad). Second year defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach, Charles Kelly oversees a unit that’s improved by more than 10 points per game and 70 yards per game from last season as they allow 327.7 total yards-per-game (15th); 141.8 rushing (36th) and 185.8 passing (19th). Kelly’s philosophy is based on speed, speed and more speed as they play a base 4-3 scheme in which there’s fast pursuit to the ball. The Noles blitz mainly on third down and play combo zone/man coverage on the backend, giving opposing QB’s various looks in order to confuse them. Kelly often has his corners man up on the outside while playing a single-high safety or sometimes going to a Tampa-2 look with his safeties, both whom can play all over the field.

Houston’s offense will definitely see the best athletes they’ve seen all season long, especially on the defensive side of the field. First year offensive coordinator Major Applewhite will have to have his unit playing their best in order to keep the chains moving as I don’t see this as a high scoring game with these two athletic defenses. Houston’s offense averages 40.6 points-per-game, ranking them behind only ten teams in the nation and an 11 point improvement over last season as it’s basically been the offense over the previous three seasons that got head coach Tony Levine fired despite an overall winning record (22-17) during his three seasons.

Balance has been the key to Applewhite’s spread scheme as they average 239.5 yards-per-game rushing (13th) and 247.4 passing (43rd). Their 486.9 yards of total offense (19th) is a 72 yard improvement from last season, led by QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 185, Jr.). The dynamic Ward is a true game changer as he leads all FBS QB’s, and is fourth nationally with 16 rushing attempts of at least 20 yards and nine rushing attempts of at least 30 yards. For the season he has 1,041 rushing yards on 178 attempts for a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. The Tyler, Texas product is also tied for third nationally with 19 rushing TDs.

Gap discipline will be key for the Noles defensive line and especially their defensive ends who must keep contain on Ward, which basically means keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to beat the defense with his arm instead of his legs. The Noles two defensive ends who will mainly be responsible for this will be DeMarcus Walker (6’3, 281, Jr.) and Josh Sweat (6’5, 237, Fr.), who’s listed at their “Buck” end spot. Walker is a one-man wrecking crew behind the line of scrimmage as he’s tied for seventh nationally with 10.5 sacks (the first Seminole with double-digit sacks in three seasons), while adding 15.5 TFL along with 4 forced fumbles. Sweat is a pure athlete who was a wide receiver in high school in Chesapeake, Virginia and has 3.5 TFL while recovering 3 fumbles as well. Giorgio Newberry (6’6, 295, Sr.) and Jacob Pugh (6’4, 239, So.) play vital roles as backup ends as the two combine for 6 TFL. Assistant coaches Odell Haggins (defensive tackles) and Brad Lawing (ends/outside linebackers) do a great job at teaching the basic fundamentals to the defensive line, especially in getting their hands up to bat passes down as Newberry uses his 6’6 frame to break up six passes at the line this season with Walker adding another five.

IF Florida State’s defense can keep Ward in the pocket, the inside running game for Houston will be key in the unit keeping, and moving, the ball downfield. After missing the past two games with a sprained ankle, running back Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) and his 949 yards on 182 carries and 12 TDs return to the lineup. If Farrow can average the 5.2 yards-per-carry he has over the course of the regular season, it would set Ward and the offense up great via the downfield play-action pass game that Applewhite loves to call. If not, it could be tough sledding for the Cougars offense as the Noles only allow 3.9 yards-per- rush attempt on the season. With the long layoff it’ll be interesting to see if Farrow’s stamina remains where it left off at before he was injured as he seemed to get stronger as the game wore on.

With Farrow sidelined for the final two games of the season, Wilson switched from corner to running back where he hadn’t played since his high school days at Calvary Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana over four seasons ago. In those final two games against Navy and Temple, Wilson combined for 181 yards on 33 total carries and 2 TDs as his footwork rushing on the interior was very surprising. Also surprising is the fact that Farrow’s backup through the first nine games of the season, Ryan Jackson (5’10, 205, Sr.), will also be back for the game. Jackson and his 353 yards (on 68 carries; 5.2 yards-per-rush) and 3 TDs were thought to be lost for the season with a broken collar bone in the game versus Cincinnati. If Jackson isn’t effective and Wilson is playing corner (with Herman saying he would see double duty), look for Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) to get a few carries spelling Farrow. Webb has 277 yards on 70 carries this season with 4 TDs and has done a better job of late of not dancing as much in the backfield.

Florida State interior defensive linemen, Nile Lawrence-Stample (6’1, 302, RSr.) at tackle and Derrick Nnadi (6’1, 301, So.) at the nose will also have a lot to say about the Coogs attempts at running inside as the two combined for 5.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks but of course their main job is to muddle up the interior to allow the linebackers and safeties to make plays. Reggie Northrup (6’1, 239, Sr.) is the Noles leading tackler, with 87, from his Mike linebacker spot. Ro’Derrick Hoskins (6’2, 238, RSo.) started the season backing up Northrup but was just another superior Florida State type of athlete that the coaching staff had to have out on the field. The Orlando, Florida native averaged nearly 8 tackles-per-game, while adding 6.5 TFL total, in his six starts but was limited due to a knee injury behind Northrup. Will linebacker Terrance Smith (6’4, 230, RSr.) is the fourth leading tackler with 53, including 4.5 for-loss, despite missing the middle four games of the season due to an ankle sprain himself.

They’ll be battling a Houston offensive line that’s mixed-and-matched to the tune of TEN different starting lineups in twelve games this season. Not only that, but offensive line coach Derek Warehime has done a masterful job this season as not one, not two, but THREE freshmen are starting along the interior of the line (two redshirt and one true). In fact, the true freshman, Will Noble (6’4, 290), was named to the USA Today and ESPN All-Freshmen teams after having his redshirt pulled after the sixth game of the season. Due to injuries four starters have been lost for the season.

The leader of the line is left tackle Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.), who has started six of the past seven games along the left side after starting the first two games at right tackle (where he started all 13 games last year, his first as a starter), and then the following three games at right guard due to you guessed it, injuries. The right guard should be Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.). I say should be because he’s been battling shoulder stinger issues ever since the UCF contest, six games ago, after starting the first five at center. Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.) has started six of the past eight games at left guard but sat out during the AAC Championship game against Temple with concussion issues. If that remains the case against FSU, another true freshman gets the nod, Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290). Eloph began the season as a defensive lineman and while he may not have the proper technique down, he’s a bulldozer who plays with tons of toughness and heart, or as coach Herman would say, “He’s a bonafide dude.”

Listed at right tackle is Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.), who has started games at both guard spots and five of the past seven at right tackle as all of the linemen have to be versatile as the depth isn’t what it needs to be just yet. Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.) helps massively in the run and pass blocking game at tight end and is key in the QB run game with his kick-out blocks along the edge that free Ward on many QB sweeps. While Florida State’s defensive line doesn’t blitz or stunt too often, the defense has 30 total sacks (32nd) behind Walker’s massive sack total, while Houston’s young line has allowed 26 (67th) behind the constant reshuffling so the matchup in the trenches will be one to see.

The Noles have a nasty front six (as they’ll play in nickel packages for most games), but it’s their secondary that drives the bus and is just as dynamic, led by the versatile true freshman strong safety, Derwin James (6’3, 212). The Haines City, Florida product has a ball-hawk mentality and a ferocious tenacity on the field that’s helped him to amass 77 tackles which is second only to Northrup while his 43 solo tackles ranks him first despite not starting until the sixth game of the season. James has 50 tackles over the last five games as he’s all over the field, adding 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and 2 fumble recoveries on the season. Kelly will use him in third-and-long blitzing situations just as Orlando will use his Stewart, and he’ll no doubt be spying Ward most of the game as well.

 Nate Andrews (6’0, 206, Jr.) started last season and the first four games of this season before suffering a knee injury that allowed James into the lineup, and adds 21 total tackles and 3 passes defended. Free safety Lamarcus Brutus (6’0, 207, RSr.) suffered a broken hand in their regular season finale at Florida but will play with a cast as he often plays as the single-high safety when they go into zone coverage. Brutus has started all 12 games this season and leads the defense with 4 interceptions and is the third leading tackler with 59 (41 solo).

Florida State’s two cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey (6’1, 202, Jr.) and Marquez White (6’0, 184, Jr.) will often line up in man coverage against outside receivers, but Ramsey will be used to blitz off the boundary side. Ramsey has started all three seasons in Tallahassee, the last 15 at corner after playing their “star” position (nickel back) last year, with the Peach Bowl game being his 41st consecutive start and locks the top opposing wide receiver down as he leads the D with 10 passes defended.

Ramsey will no doubt be locked up one-on-one with Houston wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.), especially when Ayers lines up at an outside spot. For the season Ayers has 89 receptions for 1,140 yards and 6 TDs. Applewhite will line the versatile receiver up all over the field, using him on speed sweeps, tossing the ball to him out of the backfield as he’s covered by linebackers of safeties, and he’ll even run the ball out of the backfield as he averages 6.8 yards-per-carry on 13 attempts (130 yards) with a TD. If Ward is bottled up in the run game, Applewhite will have the junior get the ball out of his hands quickly in the Coogs up-tempo, quick passing game as Ward ranks NINTH nationally with a 68.1 completion percentage (207-for-304) while averaging 199.2 passing yards per game. Minus the UConn game in which Ward played in only the final two series after backup Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, Jr.) went down with injury, who started for the ailing Ward mind you, and Ward averages 214 yards passing-per-game.

Ward will try to get the ball out quickly on the perimeter to either Ayers, Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) or Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.). Allen has been the best deep threat this season as the Oregon transfer has hauled in 52 passes for 693 yards (13.3 yards-per-catch) with 4 TDs. Both Ramsey and White will take turns covering Allen on the outside depending on if he lines up to the boundary or field side, with the other receiver covering Ayers, unless Ayers lines up at a slot position, in which the ‘star’ or nickel back, Javien Elliot (5’11, 176, RSr.) will take his turn on Ayers. While Elliot adds only 29 total tackles, 24 are solo as he’s excellent at tackling one-on-one in space. He also adds 4 TFL, 3 passes defended, and one sack and interception each.

With as much concentration the Noles secondary will place on Ayers and Allen, Dunbar will be needed to step up to the plate as he’s been inconsistent all season, often disappearing for large stretches in which Ward (or Applewhite) doesn’t have the confidence to throw his way. Dunbar has all the physical talent as the sophomore is the third leading receiver with 27 receptions for 350 yards and 3 TDs. A fourth receiver who’s really come on as of late has been Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.) who’s right behind Dunbar with 24 receptions for 306 yards and is second amongst the receivers with 5 TDs.

As if Florida State didn’t have the advantage in terms of the number of pure athletes they’ll line up come kickoff, they’ll also have a huge advantage in the kicking game behind place kicker Roberto Aguayo (6’1, 204, RJr.) and punter Cason Beatty (6’3, 214, Sr.). All Aguayo has done in his three seasons is be named All-American all three years, something only one other Nole has accomplished, none other than “Primetime” Deion Sanders himself. In a bit of a “slump” this season, Aguayo has connected on 20-of-24 field goals this season and has hit on nearly 90-percent for his career (68-for-76). He’s also made good on ALL 195 of his PAT’s in his three years, including 46 this season.

Aguayo’s four misses on field goals have come from 40 yards out however, a problem the Coogs also have as Herman won’t even attempt to have his place kicker, Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) attempt one from more than 40 yards, though he’s perfect on all seven attempts with his longest being from 45 to end the half against Navy after taking over for Kyle Bullard midway through the season after Bullard became too inconsistent, missing four of six early on in the season.

Meanwhile, all Beatty has done this season is average 44.5 yards-per-punt (ranking him 14th nationally), while placing 20 of his 55 punts inside the opponents 20 yard line while adding another 18 of more than 50 yards. For Houston, Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) has also done a nice job of giving his defense good field position as he’s placed 20 of his 57 total punts inside opponent’s 20 yard lines, while adding another 9 for more than 50 yards. For the season he averages 40.2 yards-per-punt.

Coverage wise, behind Piper’s punts, opponents only average 2.1 yards-per-punt return which ranks them THIRD in the nation. The Noles are also THIRD, but in kickoff coverage as they allow opponents to return kickoffs for only 16.2 yards per return. The Coogs allow 20.4 yards-per-kickoff (49th) while the Noles allow 10.5 per-punt return (96th). Florida State special teams coach Jay Graham would be wise to kick away from Ayers, who averages 11.3 yards on 25 punt returns with a TD while Wilson averages 26.6 yards on 23 kick-off returns with 2 TDs. Likewise, Houston special teams coach Jason Washington needs to stay away from both Whitfield and Ramsey on kickoff returns at they average nearly 28 yards between them on 17 combined returns. Wilson meanwhile only averages 4.4 yards on 24 punt returns.

Keys to the game

Which team plays better along the interior will go a long way towards determining the winner of the game. Can Houston’s front-seven keep up with Florida State’s massive O-line and corral Cook? Can Florida State’s athletic defense bottle up Houston’s run game, which the offense is based off of? The winner of the battle of the trenches will control this game.

Houston has a very athletic defense in its own right, as they fly to the ball with ferocious intensity, often forcing turnovers on jarring hits by Roberts, Taylor and Stewart. Can a defense that’s forced 30 turnovers do the same against a Noles offense that’s only turned the ball over only 10 times all year? Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

Penalties always play a huge role in every game, and both teams commit lots of penalties; Houston averages 6.2 per game to rank them 64th while Florida State commits a tad more at 6.9 (91st). The Coogs however average more yards per penalty at 57.9 to 53 for the Noles. Which team doesn’t hurt itself with a stupid penalty such as a late hit on third down or a pass interference on third-and-long will also help determine a winner, especially if the game is close down the stretch.

How the teams play on third down will also be huge as Florida State is average in both third down offense, ranking 79th in converting just 37.9-percent of their opportunities while allowing their opponents to convert on 37.1-percent of theirs (59th). Houston on the other hand ranks SIXTH nationally in third down offense as they convert on nearly 50-percent (49.8) of their chances, which is what I call the ‘Ward factor’ as he constantly converts on third-and-long by either somehow avoiding a sack and rushing for a first down, or giving his receivers enough time to get open via the scramble drill as he eludes the opponents pass rush. Houston’s defense allows its opponents to convert on 37.2-percent of their opportunities, ranking them one spot behind Florida State at 60th nationally.

Maybe the most important key to the game could be red zone efficiency. Houston’s offense scores TDs once it crosses the opponents 20-yard line more than 70-perecent of the time to rank them 12thh nationally. Florida State’s defense however, bows up near the goal line as they rank SIXTH, allowing only a 40-percent rate (12 TDs in 30 red zone chances). Florida State’s offense isn’t great in the red zone converting on only 55.8-percent (92nd) while the Coogs defense isn’t much better allowing TDs 71.9-perent (114th) of the time (23 TDs in 32 attempts). Basically, if the game is close, whichever team scores 7’s instead of 3’s will win the game.

Intangibles that can’t be measured in pure numbers, such as which team will play better with the huge layoff? The Coogs have 26 days off as they last played on December the 5th, while the Noles have more than a month since their drubbing of Florida on November the 28th. Both teams will have had plenty of time to recover from injuries that have occurred all throughout the season. Which coaching staff tries to get too cute with all the time for game planning? Could we see a reverse throwback pass, or fake punt or field goal late in the game? Coach Herman after his team arrived in Atlanta on the subject (via uhcougars.com), “Preparing for bowl games is tough, especially ones that are New Year’s Eve and beyond because it is very similar to training camp. I think the excitement is early on, you have some very spirited, fun and energetic practices because you are excited for where you are going. I think the excitement wears off a little bit, but you still can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because the game is still a ways way. Those few practices in the middle are a challenge in psychology to get your guys motivated a little to prepare like champions. I think, as evidence by the way we came out this morning, we had a great practice in Houston. I would expect us to continue to build upon that as we are here in Atlanta.”

And finally, pure motivation; both coaches and their staffs are top notch at motivating their respective players, but being the homer I am I don’t see how any staff could have done a better job at pumping up its players than Herman and his staff have done this season. They’ve changed the culture by emphasizing toughness and playing for your teammate next to you. He’s galvanized the team with his fiery and emotional speeches that the athletic department has plastered all over social media. The Noles meanwhile are used to playing in huge games, conference championship games, and national championship games. Will they really be motivated to win the Peach Bowl, despite it being a record 50th win for a 4-year class? We’ll know at the conclusion of the game.

Final prediction

Motivation will be the determining factor in a close nail biting win as the defense stops Florida State’s offense late in a 23-20 win.

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