The New Year’s Six bowl lineup for the 2020-21 college football season concludes on Saturday night with North Carolina and Texas A&M meeting in the Orange Bowl. There are plenty of interesting storylines on tap for this game, but perhaps none bigger than both teams are clearly trending up. The Tar Heels finished 8-3 in coach Mack Brown’s second year, while the Aggies went 8-1 and just missed out on the CFB Playoff.
Mack Brown is just two seasons in his return to the sidelines in Chapel Hill, but the long-time coach already has this program trending in the right direction. North Carolina finished 7-6 with all six losses coming by seven points or less last season. With quarterback Sam Howell back under center and a year better as a sophomore, the Tar Heels took another step forward in 2020. Behind Howell and a deep collection of skill talent, North Carolina finished 8-3 and picked up key wins against Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami en route to the Orange Bowl. Brown’s program lost by three to both Virginia and Florida State and also fell 31-17 to Notre Dame.
Hiring Jimbo Fisher was a big-time move and an effort to join the nation’s top programs for Texas A&M in 2018. So far, so good for the former Florida State coach. Fisher went 9-4 in his debut, 8-5 last season, and finished 8-1 in 2020. The Aggies are 25-10 with two bowl victories in his tenure and finished No. 5 in the CFB Playoff rankings, just missing a trip to the four-team championship this fall. With recruiting going well and the on-field performance on an uptick, Texas A&M is poised to make plenty of noise under Fisher’s watch. The Aggies suffered their only defeat at Alabama (52-24) this season but notched a key 41-38 victory over Florida in mid-October.
This is the first meeting between North Carolina and Texas A&M. The Aggies last played in the Orange Bowl in 1944, while this is the first time the Tar Heels have made the trek to Miami for this game.
Orange Bowl: Texas A&M vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)
Spread: Texas A&M -7.5
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
What’s Texas A&M’s level of motivation after missing out on the CFB Playoff? That’s the big question surrounding the Aggies on Jan. 2. Will Jimbo Fisher’s squad be motivated to show the CFB Playoff Selection Committee got it wrong by putting Notre Dame at No. 4? Or will the Aggies be disappointed and not play up to the level they ended the regular season on? The guess here is Fisher will ensure this team is firing on all cylinders.
Texas A&M’s offense loves to pound the rock behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The Aggies ranked second in the SEC in rushing offense by averaging 202.9 yards per game and was first in per-attempt yardage (5.4). Isaiah Spiller (986 yards) is the workhorse for Fisher, but there’s plenty of depth to spell him as he looks to reach 1,000 yards on Saturday night. Ainias Smith is a valuable all-around weapon for Fisher’s offense and finished second on the team with 293 rushing yards. Devon Achane (224) showed promise late in the season, and quarterback Kellen Mond (258) will also contribute on the ground. Stopping the run has been a challenge for North Carolina at times in 2020. The defense enters the bowl giving up 147.8 rushing yards a game. Additionally, seven of the 11 opponents faced reached 137 or more rushing yards. Standout linebacker Chazz Surratt opted out, leaving a void at inside linebacker on Saturday night.
Mond has been up-and-down at times during his career, but he’s set to close out his senior season on a high note. The Texas native has connected on 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,050 yards and 19 touchdowns to just three picks. Mond was laser-sharp against Tennessee (81.3 percent completion percentage) and tossed 18 completions for 196 yards in a key win at Auburn. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer (45 catches) is Mond’s top weapon, but Smith (37), Chase Lane (28), and Hezekiah Jones (16) will see passes in their direction versus a North Carolina secondary ranked seventh in the ACC in pass efficiency defense.
North Carolina’s defense is giving up 28.4 points a game, but this unit doesn’t force a lot of turnovers (11), has struggled in the red zone, and has surrendered 16 plays of 40-plus yards.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The arrival of coordinator Phil Longo and quarterback Sam Howell has drastically changed the performance level of North Carolina’s offense in just two years. After averaging 27.4 points a game in 2018, this unit improved its per-contest total to 33.1 in ’19 and then 43.0 in ’20. The Tar Heels lead the ACC this season with an average of 7.8 yards per play and in plays of 40 yards or more (21).
Despite the abbreviated season, Howell’s numbers are nearly identical to his 2019 totals. The sophomore threw for 3,352 yards and 27 touchdowns in 11 games — down slightly from 3,641 yards and 38 passing scores in 13 contests last year. Howell did improve his completion percentage from 61.4 as a freshman to 69.1 this season. The sophomore signal-caller is the least of Longo’s concerns on Saturday night. North Carolina’s offensive line surrendered 30 sacks in the regular season, and Howell’s supporting cast will have some new faces stepping into key roles due to opt outs. With a limited time to blend the new personnel in bowl practices, how much of a beat will this offense miss on Saturday night? Or is Howell’s presence enough to overcome the personnel losses?
At running back, Michael Carter (1,245 yards) and Javonte Williams (1,140) opted out, leaving British Brooks (46), Josh Henderson (46), and Elijah Green (55) as the top options. On the outside, Dyami Brown (55 catches) opted out, but Dazz Newsome (48), Khafre Brown (13), Josh Downs, Emery Simmons, and Antoine Green provide a nice foundation of pass catchers.
Texas A&M’s defense ranked as one of the best in the SEC this season by holding teams to 21.1 points a game and just 5.4 yards per play. The strength of this group rests up front in the trenches with Bobby Brown, DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy, and Tyree Johnson. The Aggies held teams to 3.3 yards per rush, and this group figures to be a handful for North Carolina’s offensive line. If the Tar Heels can protect Howell, there are plays to be made against an Aggies secondary allowing nearly 64 percent in completion percentage.
With North Carolina not at full strength, it’s hard to get a good read on this matchup. Howell is more than enough to carry the Tar Heels to a win, but Texas A&M’s defense will have an easier time defending this offense, and there’s an edge for Fisher’s team in the trenches. The Aggies won’t be afraid to run the ball, dominate the trenches, and control the time of possession to keep Howell on the sidelines. As mentioned above, motivation for Texas A&M will be an early storyline. However, there’s plenty of incentive here to finish out the year on a high note and end the 2020 season as a top-five team.