A reactionary social media mechanism isn’t the ideal sampling of a fan base, but the rhetoric was rather unanimous among Florida State fans Sunday on Twitter: No. 18 Houston is the reincarnation of tame 2012 bowl opponent Northern Illinois.
Following an ACC championship in 2012, the Seminoles were matched with the MAC’s Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. Florida State trounced the No. 15 Huskies, but the win left much of the national audience unmoved and unconvinced the Seminoles were an elite program given the MAC’s non-automatic qualifying status in the BCS.
No. 18 Houston, Florida State’s opponent in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (noon, Dec. 31, ESPN) is not Northern Illinois. The Cougars can win.
“It’s a very complete and well-coached football team,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said of Houston.
The 12-1 records are about the only parallels between the 2012 NIU team and the Houston team that will deplane in Atlanta in the coming weeks to meet No. 9 Florida State. The Huskies were a 13.5-point underdog. The astute minds in the desert list Group of 5 representative Houston as only a touchdown underdog.
The Cougars won the AAC with a double-digit win over No. 24 Temple. They won at Louisville and steamrolled Vanderbilt. A win against streaking No. 21 Navy clinched a conference championship game berth for Houston, and the Cougars beat Memphis with their backup quarterback, a feat which again confirmed Houston coach Tom Herman is among the best young coaching minds in the country.
In 2012, Northern Illinois entered the Orange Bowl without its head coach. Dave Doeren had bolted for NC State weeks earlier and took part of his staff with him. The Huskies opened that season with a loss in Chicago to Iowa, which finished 4-8. Their lone win against an opponent from a BCS conference was Kansas, which finished 0-11 against FBS teams that year. The Huskies won that game by seven. They played only three teams with a winning record before the Orange Bowl.
That NIU offense was built around Jordan Lynch. While Houston has a terrific quarterback in Greg Ward Jr., it also possesses a quality running back in Kenneth Farrow (949 rushing yards in 11 games) and star receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 catches for 1,140 yards).
In wins against Power 5 foes Louisville and Vanderbilt, the Cougars averaged 126.5 more yards than their opponent. That ranks ninth nationally among FBS teams in games against Power 5 competition. They were also 29th in possible yards gained percentage, 42nd in points per drive and 40th in scoring percentage against Power 5 opponents.
Louisville and Vanderbilt are two strong defensive teams, and Houston scored 34 against both.
“It gives us some [confidence],” Herman said of the Power 5 wins. “We went on a road and won that [Louisville] game, and it was only the second game of the season but a bit of a turning point in our season. We do things around here a lot different than a lot of places and certainly different than what [previous staffs] did in the past. And we had some buy-in from older guys, but we had a lot of fence riders who bought in when things were easy. They were evaluating when things got difficult and that game was testimony to those guys on the fence that this staff and this plan and this culture might actually work.
“To beat Vandy at home 34-0 was another benchmark win for us. Vandy turned around the next week and is a field goal away from beating Florida. We feel good about those wins.”
Houston also plays stiff defense when its back is against the wall, ranking 19th nationally in scoring defense at 20.5 points per game. The Seminoles’ offense has been up and down in 2015.
Florida State has a substantial alumni base in Atlanta, and the university is situated only four hours south of Atlanta. Yet ticket prices on secondary markets have plummeted. The lowest-marked ticket for the game is $17.99. The next cheapest New Year’s Six ticket is $108, which is for a Fiesta Bowl pitting two fan bases disappointed they narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff and need cross-country flights.
The bowl interest has been lukewarm so far among Florida State fans, many expecting an Orange Bowl repeat. But Houston isn’t Northern Illinois, and this game is more likely to end in the same fashion as the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or 2009 Sugar Bowl than what Florida State experienced a few years ago in the Orange Bowl.