Sunday evening, the Chick-fil-A Bowl announced its selection for its Dec. 31 matchup: Texas A&M vs. Duke. The matchup will feature a slew of firsts, as the game will mark both the Aggies' and Blue Devils' first postseason visit to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in addition to facing off against each other for the first time in program history.
Texas A&M entered the season with sky-high expectations after an 11-2 (6-2 SEC) finish in its inaugural season with the Southeastern Conference, but an unstable defense combined with lackluster offensive performances derailed the Aggies into an 8-4 (4-4 SEC) conclusion, including two straight road losses to close the year. With head coach Kevin Sumlin set to receive a six-year extension, A&M is obviously already looking to the future, and a top-tier bowl win over a quality opponent would mark a solid start.
As for Duke, the Blue Devils were nowhere near expected to score their first invitation to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but the unheralded squad closed the year with a 10-2 (6-2 ACC) record and Coastal Division title. Despite falling to national championship-bound Florida State 45-7 in the ACC Championship Game, Duke has already exceeded expectations, and a win over an SEC stronghold like A&M would only serve to further bolster the rising program.
Time: 8 p.m. ET, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013
Location: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Radio: Texas A&M Sports Network
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand
Behind reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the A&M offense has consistently been a threat to jump out to strong leads on opponents (the last two games excluded). As such, the Aggies immediately put pressure on opposing squads to match them point for point, a factor that has successfully taken teams out of games early multiple times throughout the year.
Against Duke, the strategy should remain the same, as an offensive jump-start would force the Blue Devils into an uncomfortable position down the stretch, which means taking more chances and risks. And with A&M's opportunistic defense, taking chances can be dangerous.
Throughout A&M's season-finale loss to Missouri, the A&M offense displayed an effort to rediscover its running game, handing the ball off to each of its four backs and scoring multiple times off of runs. While the ultimate outcome of the game ended in disappointment, the tactical effect of working a balanced offensive scheme needs to be part of the game plan heading into the postseason.
Man for man, A&M owns advantages across the board on both sides of the ball, and while this effect hasn't slowed down the Blue Devils thus far this season, the Aggies need to take advantage. In victories over Miami and Virginia Tech, Duke displayed an ability to overcome a significant talent differential, but Florida State proved the Blue Devils are weak when pressured enough at every position.
The high-octane A&M offense will attempt to outpace Duke from the get-go, so a combined effort from both sides of the ball to remain within striking distance entering halftime will be vital to leaving Atlanta with a victory. Due to the Aggies' lackluster defense, outscoring opponents has been their key to wins this season, and thus, containing Manziel and the offense to less-than-average scoring will give the Blue Devil offense the opportunity to come out on top.
Open up the Playbook
Throughout the year, the A&M defense has been particularly vulnerable to a slew of misdirection plays, and with the bowl marking the final game of the season, Duke needs to open up its playbook to every trick and ploy available. The youth and experience for the Aggies has grown slowly into a more veteran look, but wheel routes and the like have killed the squad all year.
Duke must take advantage.
After a two-game losing streak to close their season, the Aggies will come out swinging and looking to end their year on a positive note. Duke must match that aggression from the get-go, attacking the A&M offensive line and pressuring Manziel along with grinding away with a ground-and-pound type of scheme.
QB Johnny Manziel
In the season's waning losses, the Aggies' star quarterback has struggled under center, failing to impress with his usual high-powered statistics and SportsCenter-worthy highlights. Many have attributed Manziel's shortcomings to his bruised thumb, while others have noted he's lost his rhythm. However, with the time off between Missouri and the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, the sophomore will have the opportunity to rest up and sync up with his offense.
Additionally, as far as Manziel's professional hopes go, a strong impression during the postseason matchup has the potential to influence the quarterback's future decision or draft stock, making the Duke game of vital importance overall.
WR Mike Evans
Like Manziel, Evans has failed to put up numbers similar to his early-season statistics, as inclement weather and off-target passes have killed his production down the stretch. As the team's leading receiver, though, Evans requires a reboot in what may be his finale in maroon and white, and Duke's secondary will allow him that opportunity.
LB Darian Claiborne
Opposite many of his teammates, true freshman linebacker Darian Claiborne has surged over the course of the season, leading the team in tackles (89) despite taking the starting job four weeks into the year. Looking forward, Claiborne has the opportunity to play a vital role on the A&M defense, and a strong performance against Duke will serve to put the young linebacker on the map.
QB Anthony Boone
Throughout the course of the season, Boone has been deadly under center for the Blue Devils, guiding his team to an unprecedented 10-3 record and the program's first Coastal Division title. Despite sharing time with Brandon Connette, Boone has surged in almost all statistical categories and looks to be a deadly threat against a struggling A&M secondary.
WR Jamison Crowder
As the boon of the Duke passing game, Crowder has emerged as one of the nation's top threats downfield, grabbing a team-best 96 receptions for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. While Florida State discovered a method to shut down the high-caliber receiver, Crowder remains a threat to the A&M defense and should provide tons of productivity in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
DE Kenny Anunike
Currently, Anunike leads the Duke defense in sacks (6.0) and tackles for loss (13.5), two key statistical categories that will play a major factor against A&M. Sitting at fourth in total tackles (66), Anunike has been able to pressure almost every quarterback in the ACC, helping generate turnovers and third-down stops. As such, his presence on the defensive line against A&M will serve as a threat to Manziel and the Aggies passing game.
Following Texas A&M's 28-21 loss to Missouri to close the season, head coach Kevin Sumlin spoke to the leadership of the seniors and the impact they've had on the young athletes who will be returning next season.
"I appreciate our seniors for how they've played, how they've led this year," Sumlin said. "For our young guys, [this year] was an opportunity to learn from these situations. Being on the road the last couple weeks, they learned how to handle atmospheres, how to handle moments in games. That's what's important because they're going to be back."
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe discussed his team's monumental achievements of this past season, saying he and the group differentiated between the success of the regular season and the loss in the ACC title game.
"I know [the team] is very aware of their accomplishments, and separated the 10-2 regular season from the championship game," Cutcliffe said. "We'll put this behind us. Once you get back on the practice field, that's where the real healing starts. Results don't change you when you're the right kind of people."
Texas A&M 45, Duke 35
Ultimately, Texas A&M's talent on the field, along with its chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, will propel the Aggies to the victory over Duke. The Blue Devils' resiliency will help keep the score tight, but a costly mistake will result in A&M pulling away early in the fourth quarter and ending the season with a postseason win.