The University of Houston has quietly become one of the most successful football programs of the last ten years, posting cumulative record over that span that ranks 20th among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams competing in Division 1 of the NCAA. To say they did this under the radar is an tremendous understatement–in spite of going 12-1 during the regular season they were only ranked 18th. Some of this lack of respect was self-inflicted–they were victimized by lowly unranked Connecticut late in the season. The other major factor is undoubtedly the conference they play in–the American–where a dominant 11-2 Navy team that just dismantled Pittsburgh in their bowl game was only ranked 21st.
The Cougars took this all in stride on Thursday (12/31/15) when they dismantled heavy favorite Florida State by two touchdowns. This was basically the same Seminole team that won the national championship in 2013 and went to the new college football playoffs in 2014. And let us be clear–Houston team was really that much better than Florida State. Play calling, player discipline, route running, and play variety were all far superior. Florida State arguably had the better athletes, but the margin of athleticism between Houston and Florida State was not nearly enough to tip the balance in the favor of the Seminoles.
This is part of a larger trend that I have observed in college football. The elite traditional smash-mouth programs that have always relied on being able to recruit the best athletes (Alabama, Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame) and bully their way to bowl wins and national championships have been stymied as of late by programs with better coaching. And similar to the mild difference between Houston and Florida State, the athletic spread between the top FBS football programs and the next group behind them have narrowed considerably.
Last year Oregon blew up traditional program after traditional program, only to lose to traditional program Ohio State in the national championship game. Even Ohio State’s reign wasn’t to last, however, as they were cut down by upstart Michigan State the following year and failed to represent the Big 10 in the playoffs.
Drive after drive, Houston ran screens, off-tackle runs, bootlegs, and sideline passes, chewing up yardage and leaving Florida State guessing. When the Seminoles started anticipating the plays that they had seen in the first half, Houston changed their play selection and resumed marching up and down the field.
Florida State’s quarterback was excellent, throwing accurate passes if given even a marginal amount of time. The receivers were speedy and able to catch anything thrown their way and the running backs were tough and and hard to bring down. This had been a fatal combination of talent for most of Florida State’s prior opponents. The difference in this game? Tackling and discipline. Houston could tackle even the slippery thoroughbreds carrying the ball and their field discipline prevented a scrambling Seminole quarterback from exploiting potential breakdowns in coverage.
I watched Houston pull the same trick on a demoralized Penn State squad in the 2011 TicketCity Bowl. The Nittany Lions were so much bigger and athletic than the Cougars that Penn State tacklers threw around Houston ball carriers like rag dolls. But the physical disparity hardly mattered as Houston gulped down huge chunks of yardage with precision timing passes and ran away with the game.
It was deja vu all over again against the Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. Houston really had little trouble with the amped up muscle squad from Tallahassee. It is probable that their latest win against a quality FBS opponent may still not earn the Cougars the respect it deserves. But when the FBS playoff format expands to 16 teams from four, lookout. Fickle college ranking polls will no longer be able to keep Houston from the championship game.
5/5/2017 – Update: Houston’s 2016 failed to live up to the expectations set by the 2015 season, although the team ended the year with a 9-3 record and an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl. Head Coach Tom Herman resigned to take the same post with Texas, and OC Major Applewhite took over at Houston. Applewhite coached the Cougars in the bowl game, which resulted in a 34-10 drubbing at the hands of San Diego State.