Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Johnny Manziel may be playing the final game of his collegiate career on New Year's Eve, as he leads the 20th-ranked Texas A&M Aggies into battle against the 22nd-Duke Blue Devils in the 2013 Chick- fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
The Blue Devils exceeded expectations throughout the campaign as they won eight games in a row to close out the regular season. Coach David Cutcliffe repeated as the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year after guiding his squad to a 6-2 league record that included victories over Virginia Tech, Miami-Florida and North Carolina. Duke's winning streak came to an end in the ACC Championship Game, where it suffered a 45-7 setback to the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles.
Kevin Sumlin's Aggies were defeated, 28-21, at Missouri in their regular- season finale on Nov. 30. The loss was the second in a row and dropped Texas A&M to 8-4 overall, with the other three setbacks coming courtesy of Alabama, Auburn and LSU. The Aggies managed to take down some worthy foes in Rice, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Sumlin was rewarded with a six-year contract extension after the loss to Missouri, which made the Aggies 0-4 versus ranked opponents on the campaign. Sumlin is in his second year as Texas A&Ms head coach, having compiled a 19-5 record and a victory in the 2012 Cotton Bowl.
The Blue Devils are 25-132-6 all-time against nationally-ranked opponents, and this bout marks the first meeting between these two schools on the football field.
With junior quarterback Anthony Boone spearheading the charge, Duke has the sixth-most productive offense in the ACC in terms of total yards (408.1 ypg) and scoring (31.6 ppg). Boone caught fire down the stretch and completed 47- of-63 throws for 530 yards and five touchdowns during a two-game span to conclude the regular season. The junior signal caller struggled against the Seminoles with the conference title on the line, hitting just 20-of-40 attempts for 138 yards with two interceptions.
"Florida State has made a lot of people have tough days," said Cutcliffe. "I think Anthony has played enough and is mature enough to play better than that. The only thing you can do now is practice well. He is going to prepare well for this game. He doesn't need to be Johnny Manziel, he needs to be the best Anthony Boone he can be."
Boone, who is 9-1 as a starter in 2013, often looks in the direction of Jamison Crowder. As a result, the 5-foot-9 junior wide receiver leads the ACC in receptions with 96. Crowder tallied eight catches for 66 yards against FSU in his last outing, and has 1,197 yards entering this contest. Duke will be without its leading rusher Jela Duncan, who was suspended for violating the university's academic policy. Junior Tailback Josh Snead is most likely going assume more responsibility with Duncan out of commission. Snead registered a pair of 100-yard performances and rushed for 547 yards and a score on 90 carries this season. Brandon Connette, who tallied 13 rushing scores in 12 games, is still the Blue Devils' best option in the red zone.
Defensively, Duke is allowing 24.7 points per game which ranks as the program's best mark since 2008. The Blue Devils had no answer for FSU in their last outing as they surrendered 569 yards of total offense. Breon Borders intercepted Heisman winner Jameis Winston twice in the contest. He and Jeremy Cash have picked off four passes apiece this season.
Borders and Cash have another impossible matchup as Duke tries to contain last season's Heisman winner and the rest of the potent Aggies offense. Although he was only a finalist in New York this season, Manziel actually improved his numbers from 2012 in passing yards, QB rating, completion percentage, passing touchdowns and yards per attempt. The redshirt sophomore has connected on 69 percent of his passes for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns, while also leading Texas A&M with 686 rushing yards -- 150 more than starting halfback Ben Malena. Manziel added eight rushing scores, just two behind Malena for the team-lead. The sensational effort made Manziel one of just seven FBS players to surpass the 4,000-yard plateau in 2013.
Manziel did not have a strong finish to the regular season. In losses to LSU and Missouri, he was held to his worst and second-worst QB ratings of the season, respectively.
"He's such a competitor," said senior wideout Travis Labhart on Manziel. "He's our team leader, and he's always going to take losses tough. A lot of the times, he takes a loss tough because he thinks it's on him. He'll bounce back like he has all year."
Sophomore wideout Mike Evans also had a season worthy of recognition and was named a First Team All-American after pacing the Aggies across the board in receiving with 65 catches, 1,322 yards and an SEC-leading 12 TDs. Malcome Kennedy (55 rec., 606 yards, seven TDs), Derel Walker (45 rec., 705 yards) and Labhart (44 rec., 550 yards, five TDs) all made an impact in A&M's aerial attack as well.
While the Aggies' offense puts up 43.6 ppg and ranks fourth nationally in total offense with 538.2 ypg, the defensive unit is surrendering 460.3 total yards to rank 106th. Texas A&M managed to hold the Missouri Tigers below their offensive averages the last time out, but failed to force any turnovers. Darian Claiborne and Steven Jenkins are tied for the team-lead with 89 tackles apiece.
Duke is a big underdog in Atlanta, but that is a role the team has gotten use to over the course of the season.
"No matter what game we go into we always have something to prove, people are always going to doubt us," said Boone. "That doesn't affect us as players. We go out there and execute the game plan and compete with each other. So far this year that has got us 10 wins."