2015 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Wednesday, December 30th, 7:00 PM ET on ESPN
Texas A&M Aggies 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
What a crazy thought for a coach that has completely turned around the Aggies to a tune of a 36-15 record over the last four seasons, including a 3-0 record in bowl games entering Wednesday night’s tilt in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Of course, there is always a reason for questions like these to come up, and having two five-star quarterbacks transfer out of the program in a two week span is the latest as to why Sumlin is all of a sudden feeling intense heat on a formerly-cushy hot seat. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, who lost his job for a short period in the middle of the season, only to gain it back late and finish the campaign with 2,210 yards passing with 17 touchdowns, transferred out of College Station on December 10th. Since then, rumors have swirled regarding his sour relationship with the coaching staff as being the chief reason why he decided to move on from the program.
The outlook still looked promising for the prospects of the bowl game and next season even without Allen, as Texas A&M had five-star freshman quarterback Kyler Murray still in the fold. Murray spelled Allen to a degree at points throughout the season, but never fully seized the quarterback job in his freshman campaign. He passed for almost 700 yards on the season, but only threw five touchdowns to seven interceptions, as he struggled with some questionable decision-making. His most promising game, which showed off glimpses of what he could become in the future, came in a match-up with South Carolina on October 31st, where Murray completed 20 of his 28 passes, for 223 yards and a touchdown, and also carried the ball 20 times for 156 yards and a touchdown, in the 35-28 home victory over the Gamecocks.
Unfortunately, consistency for Murray was fleeting. In spite of his flaws as a freshman, Murray seemed destined to take the program by the horns and carry the starting quarterback position moving forward once Kyle Allen announced his decision to transfer. That is, until Murray himself, just over a week later, announced through a statement from his father, that he was transferring from Texas A&M, as well.
With less than two weeks left until Wednesday’s bowl game, the Aggies were left scrambling, but have since settled on junior college transfer, sophomore Jake Hubenak, as the starter against Louisville. Hubenak, truthfully, is a great unknown as a college quarterback. He has received minimal playing time this season, where he is 12 of 27 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown. With the game against Louisville being the first meaningful snaps that Hubenak has participated in this season, it is expected that the Aggies will rely on their talented running back Tra Carson. The senior has rushed for 1,059 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Should A&M feel comfortable enough to throw the ball at a high volume with Hubenak, they will have plenty of talent for him to turn to on the outside. Four and five-star receivers litter the Aggies roster, even with their fourth-leading receiver, sophomore Speedy Noil (226 yards, two touchdowns), home from the bowl game due to a suspension. Freshman Christian Kirk has been the top target this season at receiver, as he has 70 catches for 925 yards and six touchdowns in his first year of his collegiate career. Junior Josh Reynolds, as well as sophomore Ricky Seals-Jones should also have an impact in the passing game, as the duo have combined for 82 catches for nearly 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015.
Defensively, Texas A&M has been relatively solid for most of the season. While they are no means the top defense in a stout Southeastern Conference, they are still respectable overall in regards to the total defense statistic, where the Aggies rank 42nd in college football while allowing 367.2 yards per game. A&M has only given up more than 28 points once all season, and that was in an October 18th loss to Alabama, where the Aggies allowed 41 points in defeat. Despite solid stats on the periphery, A&M has struggled to date against the run, as they have given up nearly 206 yards per game, which is 104th in the country. Their effort against the Louisville rushing attack will go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game, as the Cardinals have boasted a very solid running game as the foundation of their offense throughout this entire season.
Louisville Cardinals 7-5 (5-3 ACC)
When evaluating Louisville prior to the season, it was no secret that the Cardinals had enough talent on both sides of the ball to be extremely competitive and perhaps put together a very successful season.Despite the talent, the schedule for the Cardinals was absolutely brutal out of the gate, as the team limped to an 0-3 start after falling in the opener to then-ranked #6 Auburn on a neutral site, proceeded by losses at home to Houston and Clemson thereafter.
While this was not an ideal situation for Bobby Petrino and company, there was still plenty of time to right the ship if they could keep their defense afloat while establishing an identity on offense. Finally, by the fourth game of the season, the Cardinals coaching staff seemed to settle on phenomenal freshman athlete Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback. He had played in portions of the first three games of the campaign, but was splitting snaps with sophomores Kyle Bolin and Reggie Bonnafon.
From the start of the season, Jackson showed off elite-level rushing ability to warrant his early playing time, which only continued once he fully seized the job as the starter. He ran for 734 yards and nine touchdowns in total from the quarterback position, bringing an element to the offense that was extremely difficult to defend. While throwing the ball was, and still is, a work-in-progress for Jackson, he was still able to pass for over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdown passes in parts of eleven games. Most importantly, Jackson brought stability to an offense which was so obviously hampered out of the gate. Despite the 0-3 start to the season, Louisville rallied behind Jackson and a fantastic to win seven out of their last nine games and salvage an otherwise lost year.
While Jackson receives most of the recognition on the offensive side of the ball, there are plenty of playmakers that helped make his transition at the helm relatively seamless. At running back, Brandon Radcliff is second on the team in rushing behind Jackson, as he has carried the ball for 587 yards and seven touchdowns this season while working out of the spread option attack. Meanwhile, at receiver, there is plenty of talent for Jackson to look to in the passing game. Juniors Jamari Staples and James Quick have 36 and 35 catches respectively, while amassing nearly 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns between the two of them to lead the talented corps of pass-catching targets. At tight end, Cole Hikutini is a player to watch down the seam of the defense, where he has quietly emerged as one of Jackson’s top targets over the last four games, catching nine passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns during that stretch.
Defensively is where the Cardinals have earned their stripes all season long. Anchored by former Big XII Defensive Player of the Year in TCU-transfer Devonte Fields at defensive end, the Cardinals have been able to wreck havoc over nearly every team they have played this season. Statistically, Louisville is 14th nationally in total defense, as they have only allowed an average of 323.4 yards per game. More specifically, the Cardinals have stopped the run at ease thanks to their outstanding front seven, giving up a mere 118.8 yards per game on the ground for the season. With Texas A&M poised to run the ball more often than usual in Wednesday’s tilt due to the uncertainty at quarterback, the Cardinals ability to stop the Aggies rushing attack will be a very important storyline to watch. However, if Jake Hubenak and the Texas A&M offense chooses to throw the ball more than anticipated, they should not expect any walk in the park, no matter who their receivers may be on the outside. Louisville has proven time and time again to be very solid defending the pass this season as well, as they are ranked 39th in college football while giving up 204.7 yards per game.
There is no question that this is a huge game for both teams. Head coach Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M cannot afford to have his team lay an egg in this bowl game, especially with his seat heating up in a hurry due to the recent unexpected roster upheaval to go along with sputtering performances down the stretch against the likes of Auburn and LSU, who were both experiencing down years in the SEC.
For Louisville, a bowl victory would cap off a successful freshman season for Lamar Jackson and the rest of the offense, while providing hope for 2016 and beyond on that side of the football. After nearly going win-less through the non-conference schedule, winning eight out of 10 games would provide the Cardinals with positive momentum heading into recruiting this winter, and workouts in the spring.
Because of all of the tension surrounding the Texas A&M program, and the apparent lack of continuity between the coaching staff and the players, I have a hard time seeing the Aggies winning this football game. There has simply been too much roster turnover to ignore at arguably the most difficult position to replace at quarterback. Lamar Jackson and the rushing attack should have no problem carving up the Texas A&M defense, en route to running away with the game in the fourth quarter.
Texas A&M 24
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