One team is aiming for its 50th win in the past four years.
The other has a coach who, when he arrived a year ago, was so bent on changing the culture that he locked the locker room doors and made each player earn his way back in.
The contrast in programs for Thursday’s Peach Bowl (noon, ESPN) at the Georgia Dome is clear: No. 18 Houston (12-1) has finished in the top 10 twice in school history, and not for 42 years. Ninth-ranked Florida State (10-1) has been to four consecutive major bowls, is two years removed from a national championship and will secure its fourth consecutive top 10 finish with a win.
“We’re the underdog for a reason,” Houston coach Tom Herman said. “Let’s be honest. The last time I checked we don’t have Jalen Ramsey, we don’t have Dalvin Cook and we don’t have four- and five-star recruits (and) first-round NFL draft picks on our team.”
In fact, the only reason Houston is one of the dozen teams in the New Year’s Six bowls is because the highest-rated team from the non-Power Five conferences is guaranteed an invite. That makes the Cougars, champions of the American Athletic Conference, the lowest ranked team among the 12.
But do not tell that to Jimbo Fisher, who has praised Herman and Houston and even compared their plight to his team’s in the national title game two years ago.
“We went through it couple of years ago when we won the national championship,” Fisher said. “You’re in the ACC, you’re playing an SEC school, you can’t . …
“Wait a minute! Good players can go anywhere. They’ve got good players.”
The one Houston player Florida State has been asked about the most is Greg Ward Jr., who is second nationally among quarterbacks in rushing yards (1,041 yards) while throwing for 2,590 yards.
Ward, along with receiver Demarcus Ayers, spearheads an offense that is averaging 486.9 yards per game.
“They feed off of him,” Seminoles safety Lamarcus Brutus said about Ward. “It’s something we’ll have to contain. We can’t allow him to get in the groove and be able to run and throw the ball.”
Ward is facing one of the nation’s under appreciated defenses and the only one that has not allowed more than 24 points in any game this season. Florida State was not the juggernaut it has been in recent years and needed a combination of that overachieving defense along with an efficient offense — one that went through a quarterback change late in the season from heralded transfer Everett Golson to steady Sean Maguire — to make it this far in what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year.
The Seminoles are hoping to use the Peach Bowl as a springboard into 2016. They should be in the preseason top 10, and possible top 5 with a win Thursday. But first, there is a group of seniors ready to make their mark, not only on FSU, but on college football.
With a victory over Houston, the Seminoles nine scholarship seniors who have been in the program the last four years will become the first class from a Power Five conference to win 50 games.
The only team to accomplish the feat is Boise State from 2008-11.
“We’ve accomplished a lot of goals since I’ve been here,” senior linebacker Terrance Smith said. “We won the national championship, three straight ACC championships. But to be the winningest senior class in college football history, honestly I don’t think nobody understands the magnitude of that right now.”
Fisher does, and credits this senior class for helping lay the foundation to FSU’s recent success. This class hit the field in 2012 and has lost five games.
“Our players overcame a lot of things this year, they grew in a lot of ways,” Fisher said. “This team took a personality that I’m extremely proud and happy about. The legacy in which these seniors are leaving and the future with these young guys who [follow] these seniors, they now understand the culture and tradition of Florida State going forward.”