TEXAS A&M AGGIES (7-5) vs. WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS (7-5)
DEC. 29, 2 P.M. ET, LIBERTY BOWL MEMORIAL STADIUM, MEMPHIS, TENN. (ESPN)
TEXAS A&M BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: The Aggies started 5-0, including a 52-28 win at the start of the year at then-No. 9 South Carolina, a win that was significant before we knew what kind of team South Carolina really was. Texas A&M also went to then-No. 3 Auburn on Nov. 8 and knocked the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff with a 41-38 victory. There were some impressive individual performances, from Kenny Hill’s quarterbacking debut vs. South Carolina to Kyle Allen’s performance at Auburn. All season long, true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett was a force, breaking Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record with 11.
Season lowlights: Texas A&M endured a brutal three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, getting decisively defeated by Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama. The worst loss was at Alabama, where the Aggies weren’t even competitive and were embarrassed to the tune of 59-0. It was the program’s worst loss since 2003. After winning the next two games, the Aggies lost their final two, though in much closer fashion, to Missouri and LSU. The defense was poor and wound up last in the SEC in yards per game and rushing, leading to the firing of defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen is the interim defensive coordinator for the bowl.
Player to watch: There are several young stars, but Garrett is the one to keep an eye on. An injury suffered at Auburn slowed him in his final two games (missing the Missouri game), but the bowl-season rest should serve him well for a strong finale to his debut campaign. With 11 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and a blocked kick, Garrett has been a force all season. A five-star recruit who was No. 4 overall in the 2014 ESPN 300, the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder has lived up to the hype.
Motivation factor: A win would be good for morale, allowing the Aggies to end a transitional year on a positive note. The season was nightmarish at times, but A&M recovered nicely after the Alabama debacle to win a couple games and be competitive in the final two losses. It may be only one game, but 8-5 looks better than 7-6, and the Aggies are about to enter a 2015 season in which the expectations are going to be raised. The team will be in its fourth SEC season, as will Kevin Sumlin, and tangible results need to follow. Gaining momentum with a bowl victory would be a nice start.
-- Sam Khan Jr.
vs.WEST VIRGINIA BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: After playing Alabama and Oklahoma tough, the Mountaineers finally broke through on Oct. 18 against then-fourth-ranked Baylor. Clint Trickett and Kevin White hooked up for 132 yards and two touchdowns as West Virginia knocked off the Bears 41-27. It was also a masterful performance from the Tony Gibson/Tom Bradley defense, which sacked quarterback Bryce Petty four times.
Season lowlights: After the win over Baylor, the Mountaineers were a quarter away two weeks later from hopping into the Big 12 title and playoff races against then-No. 7 TCU with ESPN “College GameDay” in town. But after jumping to a 30-21 lead, West Virginia failed to produce a first down in the fourth quarter, and the Horned Frogs drilled a 37-yard field goal as time expired to escape Morgantown with a 31-30 win. The emotional defeat sent West Virginia into a minor tailspin, as the Mountaineers would lose three in a row before rebounding in the regular-season finale with a 37-24 win at Iowa State.
Player to watch: A Biletnikoff Award finalist, White has been one of the top receivers in college football all year. He finished the regular season leading the Big 12 with 102 receptions and 1,318 receiving yards. White opened the year with seven straight games of at least 100 yards receiving, including 143 against Alabama and 173 against Oklahoma.
Motivation factor: Despite the late three-game slide, the Mountaineers outperformed preseason expectations to make a bowl game. A win to put them at 8-5 on the year would give Dana Holgorsen’s program plenty of momentum heading into 2015.
-- Jake Trotter