It’s finally that time of the bowl season.
We’ve pushed through some (admittedly compelling) bowls with 5-7 teams and the especially-middling major-conference teams, and now we get to the heavy hitters.
This sea change unofficially hits at noon ET on Thursday, as Florida State and Houston kick off a strange set of New Year’s Six bowl games with a Peach Bowl tilt in Atlanta. On paper, this stacks up with the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl as games that appear, at first glance, less compelling than some of the non-CFP major bowls the new system produced last season.
Beyond the entertainment quality, this game may establish a particular dynamic for the New Year’s Six. Everybody remembers the almost-yearly BCS tilts between an oft-disinterested powerhouse school and a spirited underdog, sometimes from within the BCS conference structure given the Big East’s state post-Miami and -Virginia Tech.
There came to be an expected limitation on what the major bowls could mean when these games existed between teams with such disparate levels of talent, accomplishment and tradition (not to mention money). For every Utah d. Alabama or Boise St. d. Oklahoma, we got a Connecticut or an Hawaii getting handled well out of their weight class. All of this is to say that the BCS, rightly ridiculed for its championship-centered methodology, rarely gave us the matchups we needed when it came to these “mid-major” squads.
It’s still yet to be determined just how successful the CFP will be with its Group of Five guarantee, and exactly what vibe these games will acquire. Last year, Boise took down an Arizona team that was not playing to its lofty ranking by season’s end. And of course, the Wildcats are no Florida State.
Beyond its 30-year rep as an elite program, Florida State has been the behemoth of here and now, still achieving richly this season despite injuries and losing Jameis Winston and a host of other elite players. The Seminoles have lost all of three games in the past 36 months and are playing in a premier bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. They’ve also handled this role under Jimbo Fisher in the waning moments of the BCS, stomping out Northern Illinois in the 2013 Orange Bowl as a heavy favorite.
UH is no slouch as far as programs go, but there’s no denying the Cougars are the distinct underdogs here. So how will these games feel when such a David vs. Goliath factor exists in the CFP? Will the early kick on New Year’s Eve keep Florida State uninterested and lethargic? Can Tom Herman cull the goodwill from his newly-inked contract to get his players to play well above their heads? First and foremost, these questions may need answering before assessing the on-field gap that theoretically exists between these teams.
Between the lines, Florida State is better by almost any metric. You name it, any formula — F +/-, S&P, FPI, etc. — that adjusts for strength of opponent favors the Noles by a lot here. It’s no insult to say that UH has overachieved AND still benefited from an unceremonious schedule, one backloaded with important home games. The Cougs’ conquests this season are much more dubious than Boise’s schedule last season.
Though UH showed well against Navy and Temple on defense, Dalvin Cook should find a lot of running room against a unit that has kept its head above water against a bunch of middling AAC rushing attacks. Conversely, FSU has the kind of nimble, athletic defensive line, one filled with THREE All-ACC defensive linemen, that is capable of keeping UH’s electric quarterback, Greg Ward, Jr., within the pocket. The Noles should set the terms of play on Thursday afternoon, purely on talent alone. If anything, Herman versus Fisher may be more compelling than any individual matchups on the field.
Of course, bowl games routinely look like an alternate-reality version of what we saw in a given season. Teams change dramatically during a month-long break. Preparation is so different from the weekly grind of a season. Emotion and focus (or lack thereof) leverage outcomes to a greater degree.
UH-Florida State has the potential to be a bounceback showcase for the Peach — still a year away from the true spoil of being a CFP semifinal — after last season’s blowout between TCU and Ole Miss. It may also tell us a lot about the new reality for the Group of Five against these big-brother programs.
How Florida State responds to playing an AAC team should be a harbinger for the New Year’s Six, and there’s no guarantee it will be a pretty one.