Two college football programs on the rise, two coaches who won the national championship, two top 15 teams: all a recipe for a quality bowl matchup.
The Capital One Orange Bowl (8:00 p.m. ET January 2 on ESPN and the ESPN app) features two well-known names who have peaked this century: North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher.
Both coaches have won their titles elsewhere – Brown in Texas and Fisher in Florida – and both are in new situations. After leaving Texas after the 2013 season, Brown spent some time outside of coaching before returning to Chapel Hill in 2019 to run the tar heels. Fisher left the state of Florida after the 2017 season and is in his third year with the Aggies.
Fisher’s squad hoped, of course, to make the college football playoff, but narrowly missed it, finishing fifth in the rankings in a short space of time, a steep climb. Brown, who took over the program after a season with two wins, has the tar heels after just two years in a New Year’s Six Bowl and has won a total of 15 games in the last two seasons.
This should be a convincing game with two teams trying to back up high quality seasons with a win.
Key players for North Carolina: Quarterback Sam Howell. Howell followed a stellar season for newbies with a great second season, throwing 3,352 yards with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions to form the second All-ACC team. Although lead recipient Dyami Brown signed up for the NFL draft and turned down the bowl game, Howell has many qualified recipients to take the ball to, including Dazz Newsome, Brown’s younger brother Khafre, Emery Simmons and Javonte Williams. Who was extremely valuable off the field.
Key players for Texas A&M: QB Ladles Moon. It won’t be on many price lists, but Mond has had a great season. The senior has 19 touchdowns on just three interceptions, he has a career high of 63.5% of his passes and he was excellent at decision making, handling the ball without fear of throwing the field. He’s had the support of a great offensive line and running game, as well as an excellent close end (Jalen Wydermyer), but his recipients are mostly young or untrained.
Watch matchup: Isaiah Spiller and the Texas A&M running game against North Carolina’s running defense. The Aggies were the SEC’s second best rushing team, with Spiller (986 yards, seven touchdowns) taking the lead. The Aggies’ offensive line was one of the best in the nation and is a finalist for the Joe Moore Award. Meanwhile, the tar heels allowed for 147.8 rushing yards per game and only 4.1 yards per rush, good for fifth place in the ACC. There were weeks when they excelled (UNC kept opponents under 100 rushing yards four times) and others when they weren’t (they allowed four times more than 199 rushing yards).
X factor: Wydermyer has given the opponents passes all season. The Mackey Award finalist is third nationwide among the bottlenecks in receptions (45) and has been a reliable target for Moon as well as a frequent option for the red zone (Wydermyer has six touchdown catches). Playing without all-ACC linebacker Chazz Surratt, who signed up for the NFL draft and pulled out of the bowl, will add to the challenge of defending the tar heels.
Motivation factor: For teams that miss the playoffs, these can go either way. The disappointment of being left out can lead to lethargy or it can be a spark to prove it belongs. Bet on the latter with the Aggies. This program is still on an upward trend under Fisher and this season could be a starting point for further success. Make sure they come out sharp and focused. Turning to North Carolina, after his team beat Miami decisively to end the regular season, Mack Brown said the Tar Heels wanted to play in the Orange Bowl. Though the Tar Heels will miss three of their best players in Dyami Brown, Surratt, and leading rusher Michael Carter, this is a bowl game that UNC had its sights set on – and it also happens to be his first New Years Six appearance.