The North Carolina Tar Heels are a little more than 24 hours away from taking on the Texas A&M Aggies in the Capital One Orange Bowl. This game ushers in an entire new era for Carolina football, as they make their first New Year’s Six bowl game for the first time in school history (though to be fair, the College Football Playoffs format has only existed since the 2014-15 season). Both teams will be hungry to earn a huge win to close out their season, but the Aggies will be especially motivated after barely missing out on the College Football Playoffs.
So what should we expect in this game that features two coaches with national championships on their resumes? Let’s take a look at three things to keep an eye on in Carolina’s final (and biggest) game of the season.
Next Man Up
Let’s get the beating of the dead horse out of the way: the Tar Heels are going to be without Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown, and Chazz Surratt going into this game. These are significant opt-outs without a doubt, but Mack Brown and his staff have confidence in the pieces that will be filling in these spots. Here are the players that will be filling in the gaps in the depth chart:
Running Back: British Brooks & Josh Henderson
Wide Receiver: Antoine Green
Linebacker: Eugene Asante
When looking at the remaining pieces for the Tar Heels, it’s hard to not feel optimistic about what they’ll still be able to do against Texas A&M. In the case of the offense, there are still some good receivers on the field and Sam Howell will certainly find ways to get the ball into the end zone. The offensive line has also been really good in the run game, so Brooks and Henderson should have some lanes open up for them. As far as Eugene Asante goes, Jay Bateman spoke very fondly of him during this week’s press conference to the point where he said, “I promise you, my concern is not about Eugene Asante. My concern is tackling 28 (Isaiah Spiller) and 0 (Ainias Smith).”
To put it simply: the Tar Heels still have a lot of talent on this roster going into this game. It’s hard to replicate what each of the missing players’ unique attributes (i.e. Javonte Williams breaking 100 tackles a game), but none of that matters if their replacements are good enough to help UNC take home the trophy.
Is this Aggies defense for real?
Texas A&M is going into tomorrow’s game boasting one of the better defenses in the country according to national analysts. It’s a fair statement, as they’ve held six of their 9 opponents under 21 points, with South Carolina and LSU not even breaking double-digits. However, here is the problem: A&M’s defense didn’t fare well at all in their two ranked matchups, and they even let Arkansas score 31 points against them. So the question is: what is Phil Longo’s squad really up against?
To be completely fair, both of the Aggies’ ranked opponents were Alabama and Florida, with both of them being ranked second and fourth respectively at the time. Both put up big numbers against their opponents this season, but that is also something that Carolina has done quite a bit as well. In fact, Notre Dame, Boston College, and Florida State were the only three teams that held the Tar Heels under 30 points this season, and two of those games resulted in losses. The big question will be whether or not that production can be replicated without some of the players that scored so many of those touchdowns for the Heels all season long, but after the beating that was delivered to Miami to close out the regular season, I think it’s fair to question if the Aggies have what it takes to slow down even an impaired version of this high-powered offense.
Contrast in styles
If there’s one thing that we know about UNC is that their offense is a high-powered, fast-paced system that is designed to score touchdowns quickly. For Texas A&M, however, it appears that they take the Virginia Cavaliers basketball approach to their scheme, as they enjoy grinding the game down nearly to a halt. The Aggies average a brutal 35 minutes of possession per game, which is roughly four minutes more on average than the Tar Heels. While that doesn’t sound that bad, it’s worth noting that in their final regular season game against Tennessee they held onto the ball for 44 minutes to the Volunteers’ 15.
If UNC’s defense allows A&M’s offense milk the game clock for four quarters, Sam Howell & Co. may not see a whole lot of time on the field, and thus crushing any chance of the Heels coming out of this with a win. The name of the game will be limiting how many third-downs the Aggies are able to convert. Do that, and we may be throwing oranges around in our homes for the rest of the weekend. Wait, was I the only one that was planning on doing that? Surely I cannot be the only one.