The ACC vs. SEC showdown in the 2017 Belk Bowl pitting the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (7-5, 4-4) against the Texas A&M Aggies (7-5, 4-4) in Charlotte is full of college football intrigue. The Aggies are without dismissed head coach Kevin Sumlin with Jeff Banks taking over as interim head coach, while the Demon Deacons enter the game with a potent offense but after stumbling through their final eight games of the regular season.
The Aggies started the year with a lot of hope knowing head coach Kevin Sumlin was on the proverbial “hot seat.” An opening 45-44 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl did not help matters with starting quarterback Nick Starkel suffering an ankle injury as the Bruins mounted an improbable 34-point comeback. Starkel missed six games forcing true freshman Kellen Mond into action against tough SEC competition. Mond started eight games, giving way to Starkel over the final three.
The Demon Deacons won their first four games, but then lost their next three against quality ACC teams in Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. The final five games got the fan base excited for next year posting a 3-2 record with wins over Louisville, Syracuse, and NC State.
On Friday, college football fans will be treated to two offenses that can light up the scoreboard in a hurry when clicking against defenses that have struggled at times keeping the opposition out of the end zone.
Belk Bowl: Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Wake Forest -3
Three Things to Watch
1. John Wolford in the Pocket
While Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson was receiving the lion’s share of the ACC quarterback spotlight, Wolford (above, right) was quietly putting together an impressive season of his own. Wake Forest's senior signal-caller earned second-team All-ACC recognition after leading the conference in passer rating (157.5), tying for first in touchdown passes (25) while throwing just six interceptions.
Wolford is capable of beating teams with his arm and accuracy but if not shadowed on designed runs or when a play breaks down, he also can make plays with his legs. He ran for a season-high 136 yards and three touchdowns in the Demon Deacons' 64-43 win over Syracuse. Wolford will be without top wide receiver Greg Dortch due to injury, but he still has Tabari Hines (45 rec., 625 yards, 5 TDs), Scotty Washington (36, 573, 2), and Cam Serigne (35, 444, 8) to throw to.
Wolford and company should be able to make some things happen through the air against a Texas A&M defense that ranks near the bottom of the SEC (10th) against the pass. Besides 224 yards per game, the Aggies have surrendered 24 touchdown passes and recorded just 10 interceptions.
2. Aggies quarterback play
Thanks to injuries, Texas A&M has used three different quarterbacks this season. Nick Starkel started the opener against UCLA before suffering an ankle injury and giving way to true freshman Kellen Mond (right). Senior Jake Hubenak has seen action in three games as well, but he will miss the Belk Bowl after undergoing surgery to fix a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Collectively, the three quarterbacks have combined for 2,767 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while adding another 323 yards and four scores on the ground. Mond has seen the most action, making eight starts, but Starkel was the No. 1 for the Aggies’ last three games in the regular season.
Starkel and Mond are listed with an “or” on the depth chart, so while it remains to be seen which one will get the first snaps under center, it’s a safe bet that both will get their opportunities to run the offense. Starkel has been more efficient as a passer, averaging 215.7 yards per game through the air while throwing twice as many touchdowns (10) compared to interceptions (five). Mond is more of a dual threat, as he’s third on the team in rushing (340 yards) but he can be erratic at times as a passer (51.5 percent completion rate, 8 TDs, 6 INTs).
Wake Forest is no stranger to facing dual-threat quarterbacks, as the Demon Deacons beat Jackson and Louisville earlier this season. However, Jackson still accounted for nearly 500 yards of offense and four total touchdowns (three rushing) in that Oct. 28 meeting. Mond is certainly no Jackson, but the combination of him and Starkel may be enough to keep Wake Forest’s defense on its toes.
3. Which team wants it more?
Wake Forest is a team on the rise making a second straight bowl game appearance after knocking off Temple 34-26 in the Military Bowl last year. The roster is lined with juniors and sophomores, making the Demon Deacons a potential dark horse contender in the ACC for 2018.
Texas A&M is playing in its ninth consecutive bowl game, but is a team in transition following the dismissal of head coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin was responsible for leading the Aggies to six postseason appearances in as many seasons (going 3-2 in bowl games), but the focus is now on what will happen with Jimbo Fisher in charge. For underclassmen on the roster, the Belk Bowl is a prime opportunity to impress their new head coach who no doubt will be paying close attention to every snap.
Over the last three years, Texas A&M gained a reputation for late-season collapses which carried into the bowl games. The Aggies have lost their last two postseason contests, to Louisville and Kansas State respectively. Quarterback play will be key for Texas A&M whether it’s Nick Starkel, more of a pocket passer, or Kellen Mond, a dual threat, running the offense. Wake Forest ranks near the bottom of the FBS in total defense (444.0 ypg) so the Aggies should be able to move the ball and put some points on the scoreboard.
The problem for Texas A&M is that the Demon Deacons are no slouch on offense themselves, as senior quarterback John Wolford leads the nation’s 28th-ranked attack (450.8 ypg). Wake Forest also has the benefit of playing close to home at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Will that be enough to beat an Aggies team that has been re-energized with the hiring of Jimbo Fisher?
Prediction: Wake Forest 38, Texas A&M 33
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.