The Houston Cougars are in Atlanta doing that whole bowl week thing, going to the tourist sights, chatting with the media, being treated like celebrities. That’s to be expected, and it’s to be celebrated because this season has been kind of special for the Cougars.
But the Cougars (12-1) do have to play a game this week, and that game is Thursday afternoon against Florida State (10-2). So along with the fun, the Cougars are doing some work, practicing and preparing for the toughest game they'll have this season. It’s also, probably, the biggest game the Cougars have played since the 1979 Cotton Bowl that helped to kick off the legend of Joe Montana.
The Cougars' rise in the rankings (and the trip to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl) was built on the team's schedule getting more difficult as the season progressed. That's because the conference competition got much, much tougher at the end of the season, with the Cougars having to defeat ranked teams in Memphis, Navy and Temple to win the AAC title.
But the American conference has yet to win a bowl game this bowl season, and several of those teams that UH struggled to defeat during the season have been blown out (did the Cincinnati team actually go to Hawaii?) or failed to show up until the game was nearly over. So with the conference looking like crap, many of those people who didn’t take the Cougars seriously during the season are probably wondering now why this team should be given a chance when facing a big bad team like Florida State.
Those of us who watched the Cougars play football this season, however, know that this is a good football team. Tom Herman, in his first season as head coach, has bought an energy to the team that has been lacking in years past. And along with that energy, he’s turned the Cougars into a team on which starting defensive backs switch to running back late in the season and quarterbacks switch to wide receiver, then move back to quarterback because it needs to be done for the team.
A lot of the conversation heading into Thursday’s game will undoubtedly be centered on Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Herman has called Cook “a bona fide due” (the ultimate Herman compliment), and rightly so. Cook rushed 211 times for 1,698 yards this season, scoring 18 times. He’s probably the best player the UH defense has faced in several seasons. But the Cougars also offer up a dude in quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
Former head coach Tony Levine never quite knew what to do with Ward. He played at receiver, kick returner and QB as a freshman. He assumed the full-time QB mantle during the midpoint of last season, but his strength was as a runner, and the UH offensive staff seemed to struggle at finding out how to structure an offense around Ward’s talents. But Herman and his guys had no such problems.
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Ward threw for 2,590 yards this season, completing 207 of 304 passes while throwing for 16 touchdowns against just five interceptions. But that’s not all. Ward still rushed for 1,041 yards on 178 rush attempts while running in with 19 touchdowns. As the season progressed, Ward seemed to gain in confidence, and as he gained in confidence, the team grew in confidence. Ward should be aided with the likely return of running backs Kenneth Farrow (949 yards and 12 TDs on 182 rushes) and Ryan Jackson (353 yards and 3 TDs on 68 rushes), who were key parts of the UH offense but have missed the last part of this season because of injuries.
The Cougar defense cannot be overlooked. FSU’s Cook may be the best player this unit has faced this season, but still the defense has taken on all comers and shut them down. The Cougars are big on turnovers, and as good as the offense has been this season, the scoring has more often than not been triggered by the defense forcing a turnover, either setting up great field position or else just shutting down any and all momentum the opposition has been building. The Cougars have allowed only 266 points for the entire season while forcing 30 turnovers. Adrian McDonald leads the team with four interceptions, but William Jackson III has scored twice off his three interceptions.
So what happens on Thursday? A Houston win will shut down the doubters nationally, and throughout the rest of the state. A win likely sees the Cougars ranked as next season begins, and it makes Herman’s recruiting job that much easier (not that Herman, a bona fide dude himself when it comes to recruiting, seems to need that much help). And hopefully it means that the Cougars, who have largely played second banana to Texas and to Texas A&M in Houston, will receive the affections and attention of the city on a full-time basis.
The game kicks off at 11 a.m. Houston time on Thursday. If you’re not in Atlanta for the game, don’t worry, just turn on ESPN and bask in some positive attention for Houston and Houston’s university.