The final bowl game to be played before the College Football Playoff National Championship will take place at the same site as the title game when No. 5 Texas A&M meets No. 13 North Carolina in the Orange Bowl on Saturday night in Hard Rock Stadium.
It’s a spotlight opportunity for two programs making their New Years Six debut in the College Football Playoff era. It’s also a meeting of two of the six active head coaches that have won national championships, with both coaches winning their titles at previous stops (Jimbo Fisher at Florida State in 2013 and Mack Brown at Texas in 2005). Brown has plenty of history against Texas A&M and is a well-known adversary to Aggie fans thanks to his 10-4 record against the school from his time at Texas, while Fisher remains winless against North Carolina (0-2) from his time at Florida State.
With championship-caliber coaches and successful seasons in 2020, both Texas A&M and North Carolina are hoping to use the Orange Bowl as a building block for taking the next step in 2021. Making it to the New Year’s Six for the first time is great, but conference championship contention and the challenge of closing the gap with their respective conference overlords require another step in program development that could be in the cards on Saturday night.
Texas A&M: After finishing the season with seven consecutive wins for the first time since 1998, Texas A&M finished the regular season feeling like it was one of the four best teams in the country. The Aggies only loss came to Alabama and it beat SEC East champion Florida, so when the selection committee kept Texas A&M right at No. 5 (the place it held from the first rankings on Nov. 24 all the way to the final rankings on Dec. 20) there was plenty of griping around College Station. Notre Dame had just lost to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Ohio State struggled in victory against Northwestern, so the argument was either that the Aggies had a better loss and better finish than the Irish or were more deserving than the Buckeyes thanks to more wins against a tougher and longer schedule.
Saturday night provides the perfect stage for Texas A&M to win while maintaining that chip on its shoulder heading into 2021. Instead of facing a rematch with Alabama, the Aggies get a more manageable opponent in North Carolina, a team that jumped ahead of No. 11 Indiana and No. 12 Coastal Carolina thanks to the ACC’s tie-in with the Orange Bowl. There’s a common opponent here with Notre Dame, so if Texas A&M beats the Tar Heels by more than the Fighting Irish (14 points) there’s a perfect offseason talking point that they were more deserving via the always popular transitive property. Adding even more sauce to a potential program-building win would be to make some history, as Kellen Mond is two total touchdowns away from breaking Johnny Manziel’s school record for touchdown responsibility. Mond is already Texas A&M’s all-time leader in career passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions and total offense, but his 92 total touchdowns (71 passing, 21 rushing) remains second to Manziel’s 93 (63 passing, 30 rushing) heading into the bowl game.
North Carolina: A banner year for North Carolina football will end with a lineup, particularly on offense, that doesn’t quite resemble the group that helped set school offensive records in 2020. The Tar Heels will be without running back Javonte Williams (1,140 rushing yards, 305 receiving yards, 22 total touchdowns), running back Michael Carter (1,245 rushing yards, 267 receiving yards, 11 total touchdowns) and wide receiver Dyami Brown (1,099 receiving yards, eight touchdowns) as all three, along with star linebacker Chazz Surratt, have opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. Mack Brown tried to spin it as a development that will hurt the team in the short-term against Texas A&M, but help the program long-term thanks to the opportunity it provides for the Tar Heels’ backups, but when you lose a combined 4,000 yards of offense it’s going to be a significant setback. This is a program with very little experience in major bowl games that mostly has hung its hat on Gator Bowl and Peach Bowl wins for its finest postseason performances. It seems that Brown hopes the process of giving the younger players a taste of a big-time bowl game against an elite opponent will better prepare them for the next trip, but whether it works out that way will be determined by whether the Tar Heels are one of the top teams in the ACC again in 2021 and beyond.
Game: Orange Bowl
Date: Saturday, Jan. 2 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: Hard Rock Stadium — Miami Gardens, Florida
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Orange Bowl prediction, picks
Texas A&M Aggies
I understand that North Carolina is missing a ton here and its young defense will have its hands full with one of the best offensive lines in the country for Texas A&M, but last I checked Sam Howell was still playing in this game and that means the backdoor will absolutely be open. I think the oddsmakers are dialed into this fact as well considering how little the spread has moved with the news of all the opt-outs, so give me Howell and the underdog Tar Heels to make it exciting in the fourth quarter. Pick: North Carolina +7.5 | Texas A&M 31, North Carolina 25
So who wins Texas A&M vs. North Carolina? And what crucial X-factor causes one side of the spread to hit hard? Visit SportsLine now to see which side you need to jump all over, all from the expert who is 13-3 in his last 16 spread picks involving UNC.