Dec. 31, 8:00, ESPN
Here's The Deal … The 2013 college football season started out being all about Johnny Manziel, although not in the best of ways, so it's fitting that the last game of the year is ending with Mr. Football taking center stage.
Is this really going to be his last college football game? Yeah, probably, and if so, it's a final shot to see one of the most unique players in the history of the game. No one has ever ripped through the SEC like he has, and now he gets his chance to show off one final time – if he really is going to the NFL a year early.
The problem, though, is that the rest of A&M is just above-average. The offense might be stellar with Manziel running the show, but the defense was a disaster at times. After closing out the year with two straight losses to LSU and Missouri, the Aggies have a chance to finish up with something special to work around for the transition to the new starting quarterback and a new era, but Duke is here for a reason.
The Blue Devils winning the Coastal was a cute story, but it wasn't much fun when Florida State was rolling up and down the field in the ACC championship on the way to a 45-7 win.
The Blue Devils also beat Navy, Virginia Tech and Miami as part of a nine-game winning streak to close out the regular season, taking advantage of almost every opportunity and forcing slew of mistakes to get by in close win after close win. Head coach David Cutliffe has done wonders in a miracle season, and now beating the Aggies would give a whole other meaning to the 2013 season. It wouldn't exactly be an all-timer of an upset, but when Cutcliffe gives the "no one believes in us" speech, he'll actually be right.
Texas A&M is beatable. The defense was the worst in the SEC, the offense doesn't hang on to the ball for long drives, and the defensive front is awful against the run, but it has far more talent and athleticism than Duke. That didn't matter throughout the season for the Blue Devils against other more talented teams – at least until Florida State had its say – but stopping Manziel is a whole other world. If nothing else, on New Year's Eve, Manziel should produce his own fireworks.
It's asking way too much for this to be a classic like last year's 25-24 Clemson win over LSU, and the concern has to be that this might revert back to previous form. The bowl was a dog with four straight blowouts before Tajh Boyd engineered the comeback a year ago, but this has been a year of surprises, and stranger things have happened besides Duke being decent.
This is just the tenth bowl for the Blue Devils and the third bowl since 1995, losing last year's Belk to Cincinnati and dropping three straight since winning the 1961 Cotton to Arkansas. On the other side is A&M, winners of two straight bowls including a 41-13 blasting of Oklahoma last season. However, this was a perennial doormat in bowl games for a long, long time, winning just once in ten tries from 1995 to 2010 and twice 14 attempts going back to 1990. This is the first meeting between the two programs.
Players to Watch: If you're watching this game, 1) you have no plans, 2) you're paying attention at a party and/or getting ready to rumble, and/or 3), you really just want to watch Johnny Manziel do his thing. Not quite right late in the year after suffering a slew of ticky-tack injuries, he didn't have nearly the same normal zip on the ball and he wasn't as magical as normal – it was a different Manziel against Missouri than the one that almost beat Alabama. Epic against OU in last year's Cotton, with 287 yards and two scores to go along with 229 rushing yards and two touchdowns, he might come up with a repeat performance after getting a month off. This is probably statement time for the NFL scouts, and with so many good passers jockeying for position in the first round, one more brilliant day could mean a top 15 overall pick.
America will be watching Manziel, but the NFL types will be picking over the minutiae of Jake Matthews. Manziel is a possible first-round selection – again, assuming he's coming out early – but there's no question that Matthews is going to be a multi-millionaire very soon if he can stay in one piece. Possibly the first lineman taken off the board, and potentially the No. 1 overall pick, he's a technician who moves well and doesn't make any major mistakes. He's not going to throw his man into the fifth row, but he has prototype left tackle skills.
Also likely to go in the first round is A&M All-America receiver Mike Evans, who came up with an unstoppable 1,322 yards and 12 scores on 65 catches. However, Duke has a playmaker of its own in All-ACC selection Jamison Crowder, a pass-catching machine who made 96 grabs for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns. The 5-9, 175-pound junior isn't as dangerous as Evans, but he's consistent and reliable, hitting the 100-yard mark six times this season and 11 over the last two years.
Trying to keep Evans in check will be Ross Cockrell, arguably Duke's best player. The 6-0, 180-pound senior corner was third on the team in tackles making 71 stops, but he's at his best with the ball in the air making five picks on the year with 13 broken up passes. Considered a mid-to-late round pick, he can up his stock in a huge way is he shuts down Evans.
Texas A&M will win if … Manziel is Manziel and this turns into a shootout early on. Duke just doesn't have the passing game – this isn't the David Cutcliffe team of recent years. The key for A&M will be time. Duke doesn't have a pass rush, and If Manziel gets the time to work, this might get ugly. It's not that the Blue Devils can't throw the ball – they put up a 3,047-yard, 23 touchdown season – it's that the ability isn't there to keep up the pace. Worse yet in a game like this, this isn't the stingiest team with the ball. Turnovers, particularly interceptions, have been a problem, and to have any chance, Duke has to be +2 in turnover margin, and it won't be considering it was better than +1 only once this year – the blowout over Navy – but …
Duke will win if … the takeaways start coming fast and furious. Duke wasn't in the negative in turnover margin over the final nine games of the season thanks to a ball-hawking defense that made up for problems and deficiencies with big plays. The Florida State game might have been a blowout, but it was interesting for a little while thanks to three takeaways. Duke came up with four against both Virginia Tech and North Carolina and two or more eight times. The only time the D didn't force a turnover was against Pitt in a shootout loss. Texas A&M lost the turnover battle in six of the last seven games, only coming up in the positive against a bad UTEP team. The Aggies were -5 in the four losses. But of course turnovers are vital; can Duke win this straight up? Yes, if the running game can keep Manziel off the field. Time of possession might be an overinflated stat, but it might mean something if the Duke D can force a couple of empty drives early and the O can milk the clock.
What Will Happen: Manziel will do his thing, for good and bad. He'll give up a few mistakes, but he'll also keep pressing and keep pushing the Duke secondary. Healthier, he'll look and play different, and while Duke will be surprisingly sound offensively for stretches, it won't be enough. A&M will be too good and too strong in the second half.
Prediction: Texas A&M 41 … Duke 24
Line: Texas A&M -12.5 … o/u: 75