A regional treat for college football fans is coming to Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 31 when the NC State Wolfpack and No. 21 Texas A&M Aggies collide in an ACC vs. SEC TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. While there is no history between the two programs on the gridiron, there are subplots with intrigue. Wolfpack fans love any chance to take down a Jimbo Fisher-coached team from his days at Florida State and college football fans nationwide will be captivated by the two heavy hitters from two of the top conferences in college football.
The Wolfpack (9-3) take the field on Monday seeking the program’s first 10-win season since notching their 11th victory during the 2002 campaign, ironically enough, in the Gator Bowl. NC State rolled through the regular season behind one of the more prolific offenses in the nation led by All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley. Finley was on target, hitting 68 percent of his passes for a conference-leading 3,789 yards and 24 touchdowns. The passing attack was complemented by Reggie Gallaspy (1,012 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns).
The Aggies (8-4) were equally impressive on offense led by dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond. Mond threw for 2,967 yards with 23 scores and ran for 389 more with six trips into the end zone. The ground game was one of the SEC’s best led by Trayveon Williams. Williams posted a career-best and SEC-leading 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: NC State (9-3) vs. Texas A&M (8-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Spread: Texas A&M -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Ryan Finley’s production
During the regular season, Finley was working his magic by connecting with Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers often. Harmon led the ACC in yards (1,186) and was third in TD receptions (7). Meyers tied Wake Forest receiver Greg Dortch for most receptions (89) in the ACC turning in a 1,000-yard season of his own with four touchdowns. The challenge for the NC State is that Harmon is sitting out the Gator Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. This puts pressure on sophomore wideout Emeka Emezie to come through. Emezie’s season high for catches this season is seven against Louisville with his top yardage output 90 against Virginia.
Texas A&M’s defense is respectable at 355 yards per game allowed but has been susceptible through the air. The Aggies enter this game ranked 111th out of 129 FBS teams at 263 passing yards per game allowed. This would normally work to Finley’s advantage but how badly will he miss Harmon?
2. Ground game vs. ground game
Both NC State and Texas A&M did a fine job in making sure teams didn't run on them. The Wolfpack are in the top 15 of the country at 109 rushing yards per game allowed, but the Aggies are even better. The only team giving up fewer yards on the ground per game than Texas A&M's 92 is Michigan State (81.3). Offensively speaking, both teams had their issues against top-flight run defenses. Against Clemson (third nationally), the Aggies managed a total of 71 rushing yards (on 32 carries) while NC State fared a little better (104 and a TD on 31 carries). Texas A&M also struggled against Mississippi State (61 yards on 22 attempts), who is ranked 10th in FBS.
For this matchup, the Aggies' Trayveon Williams may have the advantage since the Wolfpack will be without All-ACC linebacker Germaine Pratt. The team leader in tackles with 104, along with 10.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks, Pratt is sitting out the Gator Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Brock Miller is expected to start in Pratt's absence.
3. Kellen Mond’s talents
What Mond can do in the pocket should worry Wolfpack defenders. While NC State was held to 297 yards of offense against Clemson, Mond picked the Tigers apart for a season-high 430 passing yards with three TD passes. With Pratt being a no-show, Mond’s top target, All-American tight end Jace Sternberger, could have a field day against the Pack's linebacking unit. The Aggies are not a one-man show in the aerial attack with Quartney Davis, Camron Buckley and Jhamon Ausbon capable of making big plays as needed.
The astute reader may have picked up on the fact that not one single Aggie was mentioned as holding out to prepare for the NFL draft, because everyone has committed to play. Texas A&M players are focused on winning their first bowl game since a Liberty Bowl win in 2014. This is a sharp contrast to NC State, a team that will look significantly different without two of their top players.
The nine-win season may have been a little smoke and mirrors for NC State. The Wolfpack played four ranked teams this season only leaving the field with a 28-23 home win over then-No. 23 Boston College. The Aggies gave Clemson all it could handle (losing 28-26) while the Tigers waxed NC State, 41-7. A&M also has two overtime wins against top-15 teams - No. 13 Kentucky (20-14) and No. 8 LSU (74-72).
NC State’s two-game bowl winning streak comes to an end right before we ring in the new year.
Prediction: Texas A&M 38, NC State 24
— 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.