It's no exaggeration to say that the upcoming Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl is the most important game that the University of Houston will have played in since the disintegration of the Southwest Conference in the mid-90's. I've said this repeatedly (so why stop now?), but these final acts of the Cougars' 2015 season are essentially the opening acts for their 2016 season, in which they will face Oklahoma in the opener. A solid performance, and especially an actual win, against Florida State will almost assure Houston a spot in the top 10 to 15 teams in the country entering next season.
Perhaps a less mission critical reason to win the Peach Bowl, but a reason nonetheless, is that Tom Herman was nominated for yet another coaching excellence award on Wednesday night, having been named a finalist for the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award, which will be handed out here in Houston on Wednesday, January 13.
The unique thing about the Bryant Award, and the tangential reason the Peach Bowl has even more importance, is that it's the only college football award that is determined and voted upon AFTER the bowl games are completed, which makes logical sense, given that bowl game stats and results are now included as part of the players' and coaches' overall numbers in the record books.
From our post on Herman's nomination for the Eddie Robinson Award last week, here is the resume for the Cougars' head coach:
After a season in which he became only the fifth head coach to win the first 10 games of his career, Herman was one of eight head coaches named as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award for the 2015 season.
The other four to win the first 10 games in their head coaching career were Boise State’s Chris Petersen (2006), Miami’s Larry Coker (2001), Penn’s George Woodruff (1892) and Yale’s Walter Camp (1888). However, of the five to achieve this, Herman took over the team with the lowest winning percentage in the previous year (61.5 percent) while Peterson took over a team with a 69.2 winning percentage, followed by Woodruff (84.6 percent), Coker (91.7 percent) and Camp (1.000 percent).
Herman has immediately put his stamp on this team in his first season. Vowing toughness, the Cougars are in the top 20 nationally in rushing offense and defense, and in the top 20 in scoring offense and defense. Along with Oklahoma, they're one of only two teams to rank in the top 12 in scoring offense and top 20 in scoring defense. Nine of their 12 wins have come by double digits, with seven of those by 21 points or more.
Off the field, Herman is getting it done on the recruiting trail and his team getting it done in the classroom. Currently, the Cougars incoming class is rated 37th by Rivals, ahead of seven Big XII teams. In the classroom, the team currently carries the second highest GPA in program history.
So if the Cougars are able to go to Atlanta and take care of business, Herman will have a pretty solid body of work, but may need help given the opportunities that some of the other finalists have in front of them. Here are the other six finalists for the Bryant Award:
DABO SWINNEY, Clemson
Swinney led the Tigers to a 13-0 record, college football's only undefeated ledger, an ACC Title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Clemson will face Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in a semifinal game in which the Tigers are four point underdogs, despite their undefeated record.
NICK SABAN, Alabama
Following a loss to Ole Miss early in the season, Saban has turned the Crimson Tide into the typical stalwart they are this time of year. Behind a nuclear front seven and the punishing running of Heisman winner Derrick Henry, the Tide became the only team to make both of the first two College Football Playoffs, and will face Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl in a semifinal.
KEN NIUMATALOLO, Navy
Working within the rigid guidelines of a U.S. service academy, Niumatalolo took the Naval Academy from their usual "sleeper you never want to play" status to "bona fide good college football team" in 2015, finishing the season 10-2, with their only two losses at Notre Dame and at Houston. Navy will face Pitt in the Military Bowl.
DAVID SHAW, Stanford
After an early season loss to Northwestern, many experts thought that Stanford would be an afterthought this season. However, Shaw managed to steer the ship back on course, overseeing an eventual Pac-12 championship and a season in which his running back, Christian McCaffrey, broke Barry Sanders' record for all-purpose yardage. Stanford will face fifth ranked Iowa in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
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LARRY FEDORA, North Carolina
Continuing a theme, like Stanford, North Carolina lost its first game of the season to a South Carolina team that eventually finished 3-9 on the campaign. However, Fedora used that early loss as motivation for improvement and the Tar Heels went on to win eleven games in a row before losing a nail biter to Clemson in the ACC Title Game. North Carolina will face Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl on December 29.
KIRK FERENTZ, Iowa
All season long, fans kept waiting for Iowa to lose, and all season long Ferentz's Hawkeyes kept winning. After finishing the regular season 12-0, the Hawkeyes lost on a late score to Michigan State in the Big Ten Title Game. Still, they were able to garner a major bowl bid, and will be facing off against Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
Herman joins Ferentz, Shaw, and Swinney as the only head coaches to be nominated for both the Robinson and the Bryant Awards. Tickets are available for the Bryant Awards and proceeds benefit the American Heart Association.
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