Orange Bowl preview — Key players and matchups for Texas A&M-North Carolina

Two college football programs on the rise, two national championship-winning coaches, two top-15 teams: all a recipe for a quality bowl matchup.

The Capital One Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET on Jan. 2 on ESPN and the ESPN App) will pit two familiar names who have reached the pinnacle this century: North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher.

Both coaches won their titles elsewhere — Brown at Texas and Fisher at Florida State — and both are in new situations. Brown, after leaving Texas following the 2013 season, spent time out of coaching before returning to Chapel Hill for a second go-round leading the Tar Heels in 2019. Fisher left Florida State following the 2017 season and is in his third year with the Aggies.

Fisher’s squad, of course, hoped to make the College Football Playoff but just missed, finishing No. 5 in the rankings, a strong rise in a short time. Brown, who took over the program following a two-win season, has the Tar Heels in a New Year’s Six bowl after just two years and winning a combined 15 games in the past two seasons.

With two teams looking to punctuate quality seasons with a win, this should be a compelling game.

Key player for North Carolina: Quarterback Sam Howell. Howell followed up an outstanding freshman season with a terrific sophomore campaign, throwing for 3,352 yards with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions to make the All-ACC second team. Though leading receiver Dyami Brown has declared for the NFL draft and opted out of the bowl game, there are plenty of skilled receivers for Howell to get the ball to, including Dazz Newsome, Brown’s younger brother Khafre, Emery Simmons and running back Javonte Williams, who has been extremely valuable out of the backfield.

Key player for Texas A&M: QB Kellen Mond. He won’t be on many awards lists, but Mond has quietly had a great season. The senior has 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions, he’s completing a career-high 63.5% of his passes, and he has been excellent in his decision-making, taking care of the ball while not being afraid to throw downfield. He’s had the support of a great offensive line and running game, as well as a superb tight end (Jalen Wydermyer), but his receivers are mostly young or light on experience.

Matchup to watch: Isaiah Spiller and the Texas A&M running game vs. North Carolina’s run defense. The Aggies were the SEC’s second-best rushing team, with Spiller (986 yards, seven touchdowns) leading the way. The Aggies’ offensive line was one of the nation’s best and is a finalist for the Joe Moore Award. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels allowed 147.8 rushing yards per game and just 4.1 yards per rush, good for fifth in the ACC. There were weeks where they were stellar (UNC held opponents under 100 rushing yards four times) and others where they weren’t (they allowed 199-plus rushing yards four times).

X factor: Wydermyer has given opponents fits all season. The Mackey Award finalist is third nationally among tight ends in receptions (45) and has been a reliable target for Mond as well as a frequent red zone option (Wydermyer has six touchdown catches). Playing without All-ACC linebacker Chazz Surratt, who declared for the NFL draft and opted out of the bowl, will add to the challenge facing the Tar Heels’ defense.

Motivation factor: For teams that miss the playoff, these can go either way. The disappointment of being excluded can turn into lethargy or it can be a spark to prove that it belonged. With the Aggies, bet on the latter. This program is still on an upward trajectory under Fisher and this season could be a launching point for further success. Look for them to come out sharp and focused. As for North Carolina, Mack Brown said after his team decisively beat Miami to end the regular season that the Tar Heels wanted to play in the Orange Bowl. Though the Tar Heels will be missing three of their best players in Dyami Brown, Surratt and leading rusher Michael Carter, this is a bowl game UNC had set its sights on — and it also happens to be its first New Year’s Six appearance.

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