The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the final college game in the 2013 calendar year, and this season’s version features two teams making their first appearance in this postseason classic. Duke and Texas A&M meet in Atlanta on Dec. 31, in what is one of the more intriguing pre-Jan. 1 bowl matchups.
David Cutcliffe has transformed Duke from an afterthought on the gridiron to Coastal Division champion. The Blue Devils went 10-82 from 2000-07, but Cutcliffe has brought steady improvement to Durham, guiding the Blue Devils to back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history. A 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship didn’t diminish the 2013 season for Duke, as the program has a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history and earn its first bowl victory since 1961 on Dec. 31.
While Duke enters this game coming off arguably the best season in school history, there’s a slight sense of disappointment on the Texas A&M side. Of course, spending the New Year in Atlanta is never a bad outcome, but the Aggies had hopes of contending for a SEC Championship. Texas A&M lost by seven points to Alabama and by four to Auburn and finished the season with back-to-back losses to LSU and Missouri. 8-4 certainly isn’t a bad season, but most preseason predictions placed the Aggies around the top 10-15 teams in the nation. With Kevin Sumlin inking an extension after the season and a renovated stadium on the way, Texas A&M is poised to continue its climb up the SEC ladder.
This will be the first meeting between Duke and Texas A&M on the gridiron. The Blue Devils are 3-6 in nine previous bowl appearances and have lost three in a row in the postseason. The Aggies have won back-to-back bowl games, including a 41-13 victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last season.
Duke vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas A&M -12.5
Three Things to Watch
Can Duke’s defense stop Johnny Manziel?
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was unable to match the hardware in 2013 he accumulated from his standout freshman season. However, the sophomore was a better all-around quarterback in 2013, throwing for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns. Under Manziel’s guidance, Texas A&M scored the most touchdowns in the SEC (71) and averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per play. Kevin Sumlin decided to shake up his coaching staff before the bowl, as Jake Spavital takes over as play-caller, with Clarence McKinney staying on staff as a running backs coach. Manziel makes the Texas A&M offense go, but he’s certainly not the only piece for this team. Receiver Mike Evans is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs, and the Aggies have one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Duke didn’t face many elite offenses this season and allowed 5.5 yards per play. But the Blue Devils had a knack for making timely plays. Duke forced 26 turnovers in 2013 and held six out of its last eight opponents under 30 points. There’s no easy formula or answer to stop Manziel. Can the Blue Devils find any answers over the next few weeks? Duke’s secondary does have talent, starting with cornerback Ross Cockrell and continuing with safeties Deondre Singleton, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. The depth is here for the Blue Devils to defend Texas A&M’s receiving corps. Can Duke force Manziel and this offense to earn their yardage? Or will the Aggies be able to dictate the tempo and easily gash the Blue Devils’ defense?
Texas A&M’s run defense
It’s no secret how much Texas A&M has struggled on the ground this year. The Aggies rank last in the SEC in rush yards allowed per game, giving up 221.3 in each contest. The problem for Texas A&M isn’t necessarily talent, but this unit is inexperienced and had to replace four starters in the front seven this preseason. And complicating the run defense’s problems even more was a suspension for the bowl to linebacker Darian Claiborne. The true freshman tied for the team lead with 89 stops. Duke averages 31.6 points a game, but Cutcliffe and the offensive staff would like to avoid a shootout. With a veteran offensive line, the Blue Devils should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Aggies. Leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for a year, but Josh Snead (6.1 ypc), Shaquille Powell and Juwan Thompson are capable options. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns and will factor prominently into the gameplan. The bowl practices should help Texas A&M’s younger players, but Duke’s rushing attack will be able to find running lanes. If the Aggies can keep the Blue Devils in long-yardage situations and minimize the damage on the ground, Duke will be facing an uphill battle on offense.
The Turnover Battle
With Texas A&M entrenched as a heavy favorite, Duke has to have a couple of breaks in order to spring the upset. Outside of playing keep away with their ground attack, the Blue Devils can keep within striking distance of the Aggies if they can force a couple of turnovers. Texas A&M wasn’t overly generous with turnovers, but Sumlin’s team did lose 21 this season. The Aggies were -1 in turnover margin for the season. Winning the turnover battle was a key element to Duke’s Coastal Division title. The Blue Devils forced a few timely turnovers, which played a key role in wins against NC State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Duke finished +3 in turnover margin and forced 26 takeaways this year. Can the Blue Devils replicate that formula in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? In addition to forcing turnovers, Duke cannot afford to give Texas A&M’s offense any help. With the firepower on the Aggies’ sideline, a turnover by the Blue Devils would put this team in a significant hole that could be too tough to dig out of.
Key Player: Anthony Boone, QB, Duke
With Manziel on the other sideline, Boone is the forgotten quarterback in this game. The junior had his share of ups and downs in 2013, finishing with 1,833 yards and 10 touchdown tosses to 11 interceptions. Boone completed 63.9 percent of his throws and did not toss a pick in three out of his final four games. When Boone makes mistakes, they seem to come in bunches. In wins against Virginia Tech and NC State, the junior tossed seven picks. Against Florida State, Boone threw two picks on 40 attempts. There’s no doubt Duke has to have production from its passing game, and there’s plenty of playmakers available with receivers Jamison Crowder and Brandon Braxton and tight end Braxton Deaver. Boone doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards, but he can’t afford any mistakes and has to convert on third downs to keep drives alive. The junior has mobility (3.1 ypc), which will be needed if the pocket collapses. Expect Duke to establish the run and keep Texas A&M’s offense on the sideline. However, Boone will have to make a handful of plays just to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance.
Duke has been a Cinderella story this year. Do the Blue Devils have one more upset in them or has the clock hit midnight for this team? Texas A&M’s offense is one of the most-explosive units in the nation but managed just 31 points over its final two games. Manziel didn’t appear to be 100 percent late in the year, and the month to prepare should help the sophomore quarterback. Manziel should be sharp, and receiver Mike Evans will be a tough matchup for the Duke defensive backs. If Duke’s offense has success running the ball, then Cutcliffe’s team is going to give the Aggies all they can handle. Texas A&M’s offense is simply too explosive for the Blue Devils, but the Aggies’ struggling defense keeps Duke within striking distance until the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Duke 31