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Florida State football podcast: Houston Peach Bowl Preview

Previewing the Florida State Seminoles v. Houston Cougars

The conversation of G5 matchups is often a difficult one, and not because of narratives such as a major program "playing uninspired" or suggesting for the smaller school that "this is their Superbowl" or other mostly empty statements that commentators often use to reductively sum up a game between a traditional power and smaller program. The conversation is difficult more so because of the difficulty of comparing across strengths of schedule, in this case where Florida State's regular season journey was not exceptionally challenging, the Noles still faced considerably more high quality teams than a Houston squad whose SoS ranks 96th per Sagarin and 94th in the Colley Index. There is a friction at play between the raw stats that almost universally favor Houston, and the human understanding of how good these teams are - in which Florida State is almost universally considered the better squad. For every 2007 Hawaii there's a 2004 Utah. For every 2013 UCF there's a 2012 NIU. 


Strength of schedule be damned, there are a couple of things Houston does exceptionally well. The most notable of those things is their ability to turn yards into points. Houston is the best offense in the nation at points per drive inside their opponent's 40, averaging 5.68 per trip, and 10th nationally in touchdown conversion percentage inside their opponent's red zone (70.83% against FBS opponents). This should prove nerve-racking for a Florida State squad that has had an interesting red zone story on the year: they tighten up exceptionally well at the goal line, ranking 8th nationally in red zone touchdown conversion percent allowed, but remain a mediocre 51st nationally in points allowed per opponents trip inside the Noles' 40, at 4.5. This clash of red zone offense and defense, mixed with Houston's quick pace (14th nationally) means that they could very likely be the first team to score 25 points or more on the Seminoles as long as they can drive the ball reasonably well. But can Houston drive the ball reasonably well?

Maybe. Houston's overall run game, much like FSU, relies on explosive playmaking rather than long sustainable driving, and they do it pretty well - ranking 22nd in explosive run offense. That 22nd opponent adjusted rank includes some daunting raw metrics: Houston is 2nd nationally in runs of 20 yards or more (behind only triple option based Georgia Southern), led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr. who ranks 5th nationally in runs of 20 yards or more (16) which is by far the most of any quarterback. However Florida State has dealt extensively with dual threat QB play this year, facing eight quarterbacks who can broadly be defined as mobile QBs (Darius Wade, Quinton Flowers, Lamar Jackson, Justin Thomas, Deshaun Watson, Jacoby Brisset, Tyler Jones, and Kendall Hinton) holding them to 3.71 yards per carry on 112 carries.

In the passing game, things begin to look even brighter for Florida State. Houston's strength in passing primarily relies on converting shorter passes to keep the ball moving. They rank 23rd nationally in successful pass rate (defined by getting 5 yards on 1st down, 70% of remaining yards needed on 2nd down, and 100% 3rd down) at a crisp 46% of all passing attempts. Fortunately, few schools prevent successful pass rates better than Florida State, which allows only 32.2% of opponents passing attempts to meet those markers, good for 9th nationally. What's more, Houston ranks a particularly poor 97th in opponent adjusted sack rate on designed passing downs.

All told, the Houston offense certainly has strengths, but they match up quite neatly with Florida State's defensive strengths. While Houston's offense is certainly capable of putting up points on Florida State, getting into a position to execute scoring plays could prove difficult for the Cougs.


On its face the Houston defense looks quite good, ranking 19th in scoring defense which becomes ever more impressive considering the pace at which Houston's offense plays. Part of this can be explained by the average S&P+ offensive rank of their opponents (73.5), including only three opponents inside the top-50 (Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy), and four outside the top-100. It is worth noting that Houston has allowed at least 30 points to those three teams they played ranked inside the top-50; for comparison Florida State is currently ranked 19th.

Another factor would be Houston's consistent ability to win the turnover battle. Houston has won the turnover margin against their opponents by 1.31TO's per game, good for 3rd nationally. Unfortunately for Houston this is less a matter of skill and more a matter of luck. If we take the percentage of fumbles that Houston has forced as well as the number of passes defended, two metrics that are more a reflection of the skill of the team, and lead to a ~47% and ~22% national average in fumbles recovered and interception percentage respectively, we can calculate an expected turnover margin for Houston. Compared to their actual turnover margin, Houston has 8.35 more turnovers than they would in an average season with as many fumbles forced and passes defended as they had this year, making them the 2nd luckiest team in the nation in turnover margin.

Looking at Florida State specifically, the weaknesses of these two teams match up quite well. Houston ranks 114th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage allowed at 71.88%, which should be a sigh of relief for the Seminoles who rank 91st nationally in red zone touchdown conversion at 55.81%.

Florida State fans are well aware of the Noles' struggle to maintain drives this year, and probably the biggest element of that struggle is the short yardage run game. In designed run plays with 2 or fewer yards to a first down or touchdown, Florida State converts these attempts an anemic 55.2% of the time. Fortunately the Houston defense has been generous, preventing successful rushes in these situations 25.7% of the time, good for 106th nationally.

Against the heart and soul of the Florida State offense - Dalvin Cook's explosive runs - Houston ranks a decent but unintimidating 38th nationally in explosive run prevention. Curiously enough Houston actually ties Florida State with runs of 20+ yards allowed with 10 total, ranked 13th nationally, but when controlled for the offenses Houston has faced, the defensive stature of this team may prove to not be as strong as the numbers appear.