We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. Our bowl edition of the opponent Q&A series features the excellent Underdog Dynasty, which covers all of the Group of Five football teams. Managing editor Jared Kalmus joins us this week to discuss the Houston Cougars in their match-up with Florida State's Seminoles.
TN: A 12-1 season landed the Cougars in a New Year's Six Bowl Game in Tom Herman's first season at the helm in Houston. What were expectations like entering the 2015 campaign, and how are you feeling about the state of the program moving forward?
UD: Expectations entering the season were moderately high as Herman's potential as a head coach was widely regarded. It was a perfect situation for Herman to step in to as he inherited a really strong core of athletes and a dual threat quarterback that fit the mold of signal caller that he worked with at Ohio State. While Houston was expecting to compete in 2015, no one saw them playing in a New Year's Eve bowl six months ago.
As long as Houston is able to retain Tom Herman then the sky is the limit for the Cougars. They're emerging as a regional power in recruiting and have established a strong brand and program identity that is alluring to recruits. Herman's ability to quickly embrace the culture of Houston has quickly endeared him to college football fans both inside and out of Houston.
TN: Greg Ward Jr. is a dynamic player leading a high-scoring Cougar offense. What does Major Applewhite like to do with Ward and this unit schematically, and what does his QB bring to the table as a playmaker?
UD: I think the most important thing that Applewhite does with Ward is simply trusting him to control the offense by improvising plays without putting ball security at risk. Ward leaves the pocket regularly and has suffered several fumbles due to it but Applewhite understands that Ward's electric ability as a runner is a huge credit to the offense as a whole. Ward doesn't have the strongest of arms so Applewhite does a great job in minimizing that weakness by keeping Houston's route tree shallow. Ward does a great job of taking what the defense gives him but his outstanding speed turns a simple scramble into some entertaining touchdowns. The former wide receiver has totaled 19 touchdowns on the ground this season.
TN: What does Houston do best on offense? Put another way, when the Cougars are in trouble, what do they lean on?
UD: Houston is at their best when Greg Ward is able to hurry to the line and read the holes in a base defense. They're not able to do that unless senior running back Kenneth Farrow is able to provide a dependable rushing attack to move the sticks. Averaging 5.2 yards per carry, Farrow has been a real work horse for the Cougars. He hasn't lost a fumble all year and has not dropped one of his ten targets in the passing game. While he's been downright robotic on the field, Farrow has struggled with some injuries this season but should be near 100% this week.
TN: In which match-ups for the Houston offense against the FSU defense do you believe the Cougars will see success? Which are cause for concern?
UD: When comparing the teams statistically, there aren't many areas where Houston enjoys a notable advantage. I do think Demarcus Ayers' speed will allow him to find a few holes in the secondary but Houston will most likely need to lean on Greg Ward to find creative ways to keep the chains moving on offense. Houston's offense operates with the 14th quickest tempo in FBS vs. FSU at 123 so quick three and outs from Houston will tire their defense out very quickly. The Cougars' biggest area for concern should be muscling up with Florida State's athletic defensive line. The Cougars have been dealing with injuries on the offensive line all season so some of their younger linemen may struggle to contain guys like Josh Sweat.
TN: Todd Orlando's defense has struggled at times this season, currently sitting at 68th by defensive S&P+. What scheme does this group utilize, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
UD: Houston employs a 3-3-5 defense that often flows into a typical 4-3 alignment. Orlando and the rest of the defensive staff have placed a major emphasis on creating turnovers so you'll see the secondary play very aggressively. Senior safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald have played the most snaps for the Cougar defense and bring a combined six interceptions into the Peach Bowl. Houston's biggest weakness is its defensive line. They don't create many sacks which can lead to some dangerous plays given the aggressive nature of the secondary.
TN: Which defenders will be most critical to Houston's chances of keeping the ‘Noles out of the endzone on New Year's Eve?
UD: I really think this game is going to come down to Dalvin Cook versus Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts. FSU is going to want to pound the Cougars on the ground behind the force of Cook. A phenomenal talent, Cook is going to get yardage. Roberts will need to take perfect angles to prevent Cook from stretching his runs past the tackle box and turning four yard runs into forty yard touchdowns.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. The Seminoles opened as a 6.5-point favorite. How do you see this one unfolding?
UD: Houston is a great football team with a lot of things going for them but I don't think they're quite ready to compete at this level yet. I think Greg Ward will keep this game fairly close and entertaining but the Seminoles' physicality will win the day. FSU 30, UH 21.
Big thanks to Jared for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Underdog Dynasty for all of your Group of Five football needs. Our answers to their questions will be up later.