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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: West Virginia vs. Texas A&M

Kevin White

Kevin White

The scoreboard in Memphis should be active on Dec. 29 when West Virginia and Texas A&M meet in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers and Aggies each average over 30 points per game, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the programs due to the coaching staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and both programs run a variation of the Air Raid offense. Current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital coached under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2011-12.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 record in 2013. However, the Mountaineers showed marked improvement (and had better luck in the health department) this year, starting in the opener with a 33-23 loss to Alabama and a 41-27 win over Baylor in Morgantown. West Virginia lost three out of its final four games but getting back to the postseason was huge for the program. Texas A&M finished 7-5 in the Year One in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies started 5-0 but stumbled with five losses over their last seven games. Defense continues to be a problem for Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin. However, the offense continued to thrive, averaging 34.4 points per game in 2014.

This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas A&M. The Mountaineers essentially replaced the Aggies in the Big 12 a couple of years ago during college football’s latest realignment period. West Virginia is making its first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1964. Texas A&M has not played in the Liberty Bowl since 1975.

West Virginia vs. Texas A&M

Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

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Spread: West Virginia -3.5

West Virginia’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense

A big reason for West Virginia’s turnaround in the win column in 2014 was the play of quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. Trickett led the Big 12 with a 67.1 completion percentage and threw for 300 yards in each of his first seven games. However, Trickett was held in check over the second half of the season and tossed five interceptions over his final three starts. Trickett did not play in the finale against Iowa State due to a concussion, and Skyler Howard completed 21 of 40 passes for 285 yards and three scores in his first career start. Trickett was ruled out for the bowl game on Friday, leaving Howard as the clear No. 1 quarterback. The junior college recruit should have an opportunity for a huge day, as Texas A&M’s secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 16 passing scores this year. The Aggies generated 33 sacks in 2014, so it’s critical West Virginia protects Howard and gives him time to find White and fellow playmaker Mario Alford (10 TDs). But the key to victory for the Mountaineers isn’t the passing offense. Texas A&M’s rush defense allowed 223.5 rushing yards per game this season, and West Virginia has the necessary pieces to take advantage of a struggling front seven. Guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski lead a steady offensive line, with Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood combining for 1,411 rushing yards this season. If the Mountaineers establish the run, it should slow the Texas A&M defensive front and allow West Virginia to control the pace of play.

Texas A&M’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle

It’s no secret Texas A&M is going to have success moving the ball on offense. The Mountaineers made improvement on this side of the ball under first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, but this unit allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 5.3 yards per play. Opportunities will be there for quarterback Kyle Allen and a talented group of skill players. Allen finished the regular season by tossing 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. The true freshman should benefit from the extra practices prior to the bowl. Three Texas A&M receivers caught at least 40 passes, including standout junior college recruit Josh Reynolds (16.2 ypc) and freshman Speedy Noil (44 catches). Trey Williams is the team’s leading rusher (474 yards) and averages a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. West Virginia’s defense allowed 162 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action, so there will be opportunities for Williams to hit big plays on the ground. However, regardless of Texas A&M’s success on offense, it’s critical for this team to win the turnover battle. West Virginia is -15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies are -7. Both teams have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Mountaineers have been more generous in their giveaways. If Texas A&M scores 30 points and wins the turnover battle, it’s a good bet Sumlin’s team wins the Liberty Bowl.

Final Analysis

With the familiarity between the two head coaches and ability of both teams to score around 30 points a game, this could be one of the most entertaining bowl matchups from outside of the New Year’s Six arrangement. The turnover battle is critical for both teams, as Texas A&M and West Virginia each recorded a negative margin in 2014. Whichever team wins the turnover battle and makes a few timely stops on defense will win. It’s a tossup, but the guess here is Howard fills in admirably for Howard, White shines in his last collegiate game, while Shell tops 100 yards on the ground for the Mountaineers to close out 2014 with a victory.

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Prediction: West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 34