The Louisville Cardinals (7-5) and the Texas A&M Aggies (8-4) have essentially had the same season. One full of overcoming injuries along with a campaign of losing games they should have won. The greatest challenge for both teams, however, has been at the quarterback position.
Both teams entered the season with special returning players in Texas A&M Kyle Allen and Louisville's Reggie Bonnafon. Both teams also featured highly touted freshmen, that have made huge contributions to their teams overall success as this season progressed in the Cardinals' Lamar Jackson and Aggies' Kyler Murray.
The two teams’ season stats are almost mirror images of each other. Both teams average around 28 points per game. Both teams average slightly over 400 yards per game in total offense, while giving up 350 yards to their opponents. Louisville has been the better team on the ground, averaging 200 yards per game, but the Aggies are the better passing team, averaging that same 200 yards per game through the air. The season results have essentially produced the same for both teams. The postseason is an altogether different conversation.
Since the regular season ended, Texas A&M has lost both its starting QB and superstar freshman backup. Neither will play in the bowl game, leaving scarcely used sophomore third-string QB Jake Hubenak as the starter. Hubenak has thrown a total of 27 passes thus far. He is a very inexperienced replacement to the dynamic talent that the Aggies possessed, and that drastic change may be the ultimate difference in a game that didn't possess much margin for error for either team.
Louisville seemed to finally settle its quarterback carousel issues by season’s end, opting to go with the dual-threat abilities of freshman Lamar Jackson, over the pocket presence of sophomore Reggie Bonnafon. Louisville finished the season winning five of its last six games, with Jackson taking the majority of those snaps.
To sum it up, this Music City Bowl will feature two teams trying to find their own version of harmony.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Texas A&M vs. Louisville (Nashville)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Spread: Louisville -5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Sum Total of The Whole
Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin will earn his coaching paycheck within the context of this one game. If Sumlin can go out and win this game, without his starting quarterback or his backup signal-caller, it will solidify him as one of the best coaches in the country. The Aggies have spent the entire holiday season with little optimism and tons of question marks about the culture and climate surrounding the program. If Texas A&M can come out and get a big win against a very talented Louisville team, Sumlin and company can quiet the critics, and reestablish themselves in the mind of the Aggie faithful and with big-name recruits on the fence about the program.
2. Mr. Jackson Can Make That Music
Louisville's Lamar Jackson has developed into the definition of a dual-threat quarterback in his first season. The freshman leads the team in both passing (1,634 yards) and rushing (734), and has accounted for 19 total touchdowns (10 passing, 9 rushing, both team highs). He is a one-man offensive wrecking crew. If The Aggies can stop him, or slow him down, then they win. But therein lies the challenge for coordinator John Chavis’ defense. It is simply not that easy to do, as Jackson averages five yards per rushing attempt and seven yards per pass. And if Texas A&M’s patchwork offense struggles against Louisville’s fairly stout defense, then it could be a long afternoon for the Aggies.
3. Will Hubanek be the Next Big Thing?
The nation has spent the last five years talking affectionately about Texas A&M quarterbacks, from Johnny Manziel to Kyle Allen to Kyler Murray. Now the Aggies hand the keys to the Aggie Kingdom to Jake Hubenak. This was not the plan when the season ended. It became the plan when Murray and Allen decided to transfer. Now with very little prep time, and the pressure of the program on his shoulders, Hubenak is being called on to not just go be good, but also to go out and generate the offense of a young team, the way the two ahead of him on the depth chart did. The offense has other playmakers, such as running back Tra Carson and wide receiver Christian Kirk, but for the Aggies to win Hubenak can't just manage the game, he must make his own share of plays.
There may be too much for the Aggies to overcome in such a short amount of time. Kevin Sumlin is trying to hold this team together while being squarely under the microscope, with questions of his coaching style coming heavily under fire. It just doesn't feel like they will be able to find all the answers they will need to defeat a Louisville team, who will be playing in a virtual home game in Nashville. Too much from quarterback Lamar Jackson, and a Cardinal defense that smells blood in the water will result in a disappointing visit to the Music City for Texas A&M.
Prediction: Louisville 41, Texas A&M 27
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence, Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence also has written for the Dallas Morning News, Yahoo!'s Rivals.com, and ESPN Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ.