As we get closer to New Year’s Day the bowl games become more compelling, and that’s certainly the case with Monday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl between Texas A&M and West Virginia. It’s a matchup of two head coaches familiar with each other and two similar offenses, and it gives us a dose of Big 12 vs. SEC, which always is good for debate. Let’s break it down:
What’s at stake: In the 119-season history of Texas A&M football, the Aggies have never won four consecutive bowl games. They have the opportunity to do so here, seeking a fourth straight bowl win dating back to 2011. West Virginia is appearing in its third bowl game in four seasons under Dana Holgorsen and seeks its second bowl win in that span.
Players to watch: West Virginia receiver Kevin White is worth the price of admission. The senior is one of college football’s best receivers, ranking sixth in the nation in receptions (102) and seventh in receiving yards (1,318), with nine touchdowns. He shows a knack for making big-time, highlight-worthy plays. For Texas A&M, true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett has lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Aggies land. He finished the regular season tied for second in the SEC in sacks (11), which broke Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record, Garrett had 12.5 tackles for loss, and he has been a headache for opposing offensive tackles and quarterbacks.
Familiar faces: These head coaches know each other well. Kevin Sumlin’s first offensive coordinator hire as a head coach in Houston was Holgorsen in 2008. The two won 18 games together in two seasons before Holgorsen left for the same position at Oklahoma State. He took then-graduate assistant Jake Spavital with him from Houston to Stillwater and eventually to West Virginia before Sumlin tabbed Spavital to replace Kliff Kingsbury’s spot on the Texas A&M staff when Kingsbury left his offensive coordinator post for the head-coaching job at Texas Tech.
Similar attacks: Both teams operate in a one-back spread attack rooted in Air Raid principles. Each team scores a lot (West Virginia averages 33.2 points, Texas A&M 34.4) and throws quite a bit, too; the Mountaineers average 314.6 passing yards per game, while the Aggies average 306.4.
Trickett out: West Virginia starting quarterback Clint Trickett will miss the game, announcing last week that he is hanging up his cleats because of concussions he's suffered. Sophomore Skyler Howard will start at quarterback for the Mountaineers. In three games, including a start versus Iowa State, Howard has thrown for 483 yards and five touchdowns.
Record breaker: Texas A&M sophomore receiver Josh Reynolds has emerged as one of quarterback Kyle Allen’s favorite receivers, and even when Kenny Hill was starting, Reynolds was making things happen. The unheralded junior college recruit tied the single-season school record (held by Mike Evans and Jeff Fuller) with 12 receiving touchdowns. One more would put Reynolds at the top of the list, lofty status for someone who received little buzz when he enrolled at Texas A&M in January.
Coaching attrition: Texas A&M will be without three coaches that it ended the regular season with: defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson and receivers coach David Beaty. Snyder was fired the day after the Aggies’ season-ending loss to LSU; linebackers coach Mark Hagen will serve as the interim defensive coordinator for the Liberty Bowl. Beaty accepted the head-coaching position at Kansas, and earlier this month Sumlin announced that Anderson won’t return next season or coach in the bowl game. The Aggies will operate with two full-time offensive assistants (Jake Spavital and Clarence McKinney), while graduate assistant Chris Smith assists with the offensive line duties for the game. West Virginia will say goodbye to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson after the Liberty Bowl, as he will become Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, but Dawson will be with the Mountaineers’ staff working Monday’s game.