ATLANTA -- Following No. 18 Houston's 38-24 win over heavily favored No. 9 Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, there was nearly too much emotion to spread around.
There were pictures with family members and cheerleaders. Position mates and coaches got in, as did elated fans hanging over the stands almost touching the turf to get just a piece of their now 13-1 Cougars wading through a sea of red, white and blue confetti.
One player, so overcome with joy, even dropped his glove on the 50-yard line in the center of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl logo, leaving his and his team's mark on an improbable game and season that pushed Houston near the top of the college football ranks.
"Going into this game, we knew [Florida State] disrespected us and we felt they were taking us lightly," running back Kenneth Farrow said. "We knew that if we went out and threw the first punch, they were gonna be in shock.
"It took this game for people to finally open their eyes. We came out here to let everybody know that if we want respect, we're gonna come out and take it. Now, they have to give it to us."
Failing to would be foolish. Not only did this team physically dominate Florida State, it sent a message that it's probably not going anywhere in the near future. The 2015 season was stellar -- and Houston was a UConn win away from a possible backdoor berth in the College Football Playoff -- but 2016 could be even better with most of the talent returning better and wiser. And with up-and-coming star coach Tom Herman sticking around, the Cougars should open 2016 as a top-20 team and a dark horse for a real playoff run.
"We let the world know that the U of H is back -- Andre Ware days," said receiver Demarcus Ayers, who registered a game-high nine catches for a team-high 82 yards against FSU. "We're here and we want everyone to know that we're here and we can compete with anyone in the nation when we're playing at our best."
It was only fitting that Ware, the Houston legend and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, was in the house and followed the Cougars out for the pregame coin toss. And it's only fitting that this year's New Year's Eve festivities started with a team poised to make yet another run toward college football's new biggest night of the season.
Ayers, Houston's leading receiver (98 catches, 1,222 yards, six TDs), won't return, but superstar quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who took home offensive MVP honors after recording 305 total yards of offense and three touchdowns Thursday, will be back. Ward, the ultimate X factor and game-changer, was second this season only to Navy's Keenan Reynolds when it came to rushing yards (1,108) and rushing touchdowns (21) by a quarterback.
Ward will get most of his offensive line back and will also regain the services of No. 2 receiver Chance Allen, who caught 56 passes for 752 yards and nabbed two of his six touchdowns on the year against the Noles.
Defensively, there will certainly be some reshuffling in the secondary. Leading tackler Elandon Roberts will graduate, but heady linebacker Steven Taylor, who registered 18.5 tackles for loss this season, should return, with a solid youthful foundation to work around him.
"The sky's the limit for this team and this program," Ayers said.
The postgame locker room scene of teenage and early-20s players dancing to Nelly and Tupac blaring through the Cougars' deafening sound system seemed somewhat unbelievable considering their opponent and the season that should have been. But these players saw something special coming. Many looked at the 34-31 win over Louisville in Week 2 as a launching point for this team because it proved the Cougars could fight with seemingly more talented teams, even if outsiders still overlooked them.
"We have a chip on our shoulders the size of the Grand Canyon," senior offensive lineman Alex Cooper said, "and we wouldn't want it any other way.”
Their confidence only strengthened when they were doubted coming into Thursday. Senior cornerback Tyler White snickered about having a "27 percent chance to win" as he strutted into the locker room. Ayers challenged Florida State's toughness in the game and said his team already won the mental edge after dominating bowl competitions -- from milkshake-drinking contests to go-kart racing -- during the week.
"We saw it coming," Ayers said. "From the day we got here, those guys didn't look like they wanted to be here. They didn't look intense. We came with a lot more energy. We tried to beat them in everything we competed against them in. They were so laid-back and they thought they were just going to come in here and check the box for victory."
That competitive attitude is what Herman instilled and what pushed this team into the national limelight. At the beginning of the year, it was tough to fill Houston's 40,000-seat stadium. Now, the Cougars are the talk of the city, and that should only continue in 2016.
"We're certainly going to enjoy this win and this season for a good couple weeks, but when classes start in January, we're going to get back to everything and more that got us to this point," Herman said.