7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Texas A&M -7, Over/Under: 56
The time between the two rounds of the College Football Playoff can be a tiresome wait, but for those still in search of good football there is plenty to be found in the form of the North Carolina State facing off against No. 19 Texas A&M in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl from TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. It feels like the end of a cycle for North Carolina State (9-3, 5-3 in ACC), who in addition to seeing off a number of significant players from the past few seasons, have an opportunity to earn what would be just their second ten-win campaign in school history, with the last instance occurring back in 2002. Dave Doeren’s charges have steadily improved over each of the past three years, with back-to-back 7-6 terms in 2015 and 2016 before finishing at 9-4 last year. This season, a dismal midseason stretch was bookended by quality runs, with the Wolfpack carrying a three-game winning streak into today’s contest. Over their last three wins, NC State has caught fire offensively, averaging a stellar 48.0 Points per Game on 526.3 Total Yards, which really should come as no surprise, for throughout the majority of the season they were arguably the most prolific attack in the Atlantic Coast Conference, save for Clemson of course. On the year, they averaged 35.6 Points (21st Overall) on 471.5 Total Yards, including 327.7 Yards through the air and another 143.8 Yards on the ground, topping the 500-Yard Threshold on six occasions, including a season-best 603 in the Regular Season Finale, a 58-3 thrashing of East Carolina.
The strength of this unit is it’s Passing Game, triggered by Senior Quarterback Ryan Finley, who has enjoyed a solid stay in Raleigh since transferring from Boise State back in 2016. A prototypical Pocket Passer, with the presence and accuracy to attract NFL Scouts, Finley has completed 67.9% of his Attempts for 3,789 Yards on 8.4 Yards per Carry, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns in comparison to Nine Interceptions in his Senior Campaign, making the most of the litany of weapons at his disposal. Fellow Senior Reggie Gallaspy (214 CAR, 1,014 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 18 TD) has been the primary Tailback, while the Receiving Corps ranks among the best in the nation with the likes of Kelvin Harmon (81 REC, 1,186 YDS, 14.6 Y/R, 7 TD), Jakobi Meyers (89 REC, 1,028 YDS, 11.6 Y/R, 4 TD), and Emeka Emezie (47 REC, 580 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 5 TD) shredding Secondaries. While the absence of Harmon, who will be sitting out as a projected First Round Pick in this Spring’s NFL Draft, is surely disappointing, Meyers, who led the Wolfpack in Receptions figures to catch even more passes. Each of their playmakers made a sizable impact in the thumping of East Carolina, with Finley completing 32-of-44 Passes for 409 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while Gallaspy trampled the Pirates in route to 220 Yards and a pair of scores on Twenty-Two Carries, with Meyers (13 REC, 163 YDS) and Harmon (6 REC, 67 YDS) both hauling in a Touchdown.
However, as good as the North Carolina State has looked at times this season, the criticism remains that the majority of their success has come at the expense of weaker competition. Indeed, Doeren’s charges have taken advantage of the weaker parts of their schedule, which was altogether fairly weak to begin with, for the only ranked team that they have faced this season was Clemson, who absolutely smoked them in a 41-7 rout. The Wolfpack barely survived a 7-5 Boston College team at home (28-23), and fell in a shootout on the road at Syracuse (41-51), while falling out of the rankings altogether thanks to an ugly 23-27 defeat at home to Wake Forest, who barely finished the season above .500. On a number of occasions, the Defense has fallen apart, particularly the Pass Defense, which was exploited in each of their three losses. Granted, getting embarrassed against the Tigers is one thing (32-of-48, 380 YDS, 1 TD), but they simply had no answer for either the Orange (26-of-44, 473 YDS, 3 TD) or the Demon Deacons (22-of-33, 297 YDS, 3 TD). On the season, NC State has permitted 271.2 Passing Yards per Game and Seventeen Touchdowns through the air, seven of which came in that triplicate of defeat. Don’t expect this facet of their Defense to make any major leap of improvement today, for Senior Linebacker Germaine Pratt (104 TKL, 10.0 TFL, 6.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD) will also be sitting out the affair due to keeping himself healthy for the NFL Draft Process. Pratt, a former Safety and arguably their all-around best defender, missed the penultimate game of their schedule before playing sparingly in the Finale due to a knee injury.
Meanwhile, as one team comes to the end of a cycle, Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3 in SEC) is beginning theirs, looking to end Year One of the Jimbo Fisher Era with a long-awaited Postseason Win. It’s been a drought for the Aggies, who have lost three consecutive Bowls, including last year’s Belk Bowl in a spirited 52-55 affair to Wake Forest. On that day, their players were trying to impress the incoming Fisher, who arrived from Florida State with quite a resume’, highlighted by the 2013 BCS National Championship. Since the Program transitioned from the Big XII to the Southeast Conference, it’s been a difficult path to success, particularly in sharing a loaded division with the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU, with one of the first two competing for the National Championship in all but one of those seasons. Indeed, during that period in which their direct competition has enjoyed tremendous success, the Aggies have done little to validate their move to their new home, earning a middling 51-27 record (.654). Now, you may think that that particular record is far from shameful, but the devil is always in the details, and there were very clear circumstances that led to the door opening for Fisher in the first place. to get things started, his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, never managed to build anything of consequence off his initial 11-2 campaign in 2012. Furthermore, he struggled repeatedly head-to-head with the Crimson Tide and Tigers, while coming up empty in the Postseason on a regular basis. Furthermore, there was continuous discord behind the scenes, which caused a number of high-profile recruits to transfer away from College Station, none more so damning than this year’s Heisman winner, Kyler Murray. The bottom line is that Sumlin has plenty of time to build the program in a contender, but for a variety of reasons failed to do so. nd with that said, is it any wonder that they “sold the farm” to acquire the services of Fisher?
However, it needs to be said that despite his stellar success in Tallahassee, Fisher also parted ways with Florida State on relatively poor terms, leaving a proverbial mess in his wake. Indeed, he was for all intents and purposes a Head Coach in dire need of a change of scenery, which he got in the form of Texas A&M, who with a win today would secure their fourth Nine-Win Season in the last twenty years, and earn their first Bowl Victory since the 2014 Liberty Bowl. Like their counterpart today, the Aggies overcame a midseason malaise to close the Regular Season with three consecutive wins, capped by an epic 74-72 affair with LSU that required SEVEN overtimes, in one of the longest games in the College Football History. Like a boxing match that goes the distance, neither combatant was willing to give an inch to the other, before home side capitalized where the Tigers couldn’t, converting a walk-off Two-Point Conversion to seal the deal. It was a huge win for the Program, for up until that point, Fisher’s charges had largely come up short against a stacked schedule, with losses to the likes of Clemson (26-28), Alabama (23-45), Auburn (24-28), and Mississippi State (13-28). Granted, they managed to beat Kentucky (20-14), who was in fact ranked Thirteenth in the country at the time, but the win over Louisiana State was something to build from against a bitter division rival. Indeed, Texas A&M had played the giants on their schedule tough as nails, but up until the Finale, that hadn’t been able to finish.
Now they opportunity to do just that on a grander scale, while at the same time building momentum into next season, in which they figure to be a much improved group. All season, the Aggies have been a prolific Offense, averaging 34.7 Points per Game (25th Overall) on 465.8 Total Yards, including 262.0 Yards through the air and another 203.8 Yards on the ground, proving to be one of the most balanced attacks in the country. Sophomore Quarterback Kellen Mond figures to be in line for greater things next season, having completed 57.6% of his Passes for 2,967 Yards on 7.6 Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-three Touchdowns and Eight Interceptions, while also rushing for 387 Yards and another Six Touchdowns on 144 Carries. Junior Tailback Trayveon Williams recaptured the form that made him such a hot commodity as a Freshman, leading the SEC in Rushing Yards (1,524), Rushing Touchdowns (15), and Yards from Scrimmage (1,802) in 2018. Jace Sternberger emerged as one of the most effective Tight Ends in the country after transferring from Kansas, reeling in Forty-Seven Receptions for 804 Yards and Ten Touchdowns in route to earning All-American honors. Each of these kids is eligible to return next season, and if they do then this Offense could indeed fly to even higher levels.