Texas A&M has had many sunny days under first-year coach Jimbo Fisher, so it’s somewhat fitting the Aggies will end the season in the Sunshine State.
The Aggies, ranked 19th in the final College Football Playoff rankings, will play the unranked North Carolina State Wolfpack in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 31. It’ll only be A&M’s third bowl trip to Florida, the last coming in the 1957 Gator Bowl.
“When you’re in Florida, you’re in significant bowl games,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of great bowl games in that state. The good thing is, you usually get warm weather. It’s a great opportunity for us to go back and I think expand our brand, to be able to brand ourselves down into Florida because we want to recruit nationally, and everywhere we go.”
A&M (8-4) and N.C. State (9-3) will be meeting for the first time. Fisher, though, was 5-3 against the Wolfpack in Atlantic Coast Conference play while at Florida State, including 4-1 against N.C. State coach Dave Doeren.
“Dave is one of the outstanding coaches in this country,” Fisher said. “He’s done a heck of a job.”
N.C. State is making its fifth straight bowl appearance under Doeren, who has led the Wolfpack to back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time since 1991-92.
“I absolutely feel like we’re in an elite bowl,” Doren said on a teleconference. “I had a lot of conversations with different people throughout the week, and we’re excited to be in the Gator Bowl.”
N.C. State is led by senior quarterback Ryan Finley, who has thrown for 3,789 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Finley helps the Wolfpack average 327.7 yards per game to rank sixth in the country.
“Their quarterback is one of the best in all of college football,” Fisher said. “I’ve said that for the last 2-3 years, he has been a great player in the ACC. He played great games against us. It’ll be a great challenge.”
In two games against Fisher’s Seminoles, Finley threw for 534 yards on 47 of 73 with three touchdowns and an interception.
A&M has struggled to defend the pass, allowing 262.7 yards per game to rank 109th.
Some bowl projections had A&M possibly going to the Outback Bowl, which would have matched it against a Big Ten opponent not so proficient at passing such as Iowa (227.7 ypg passing to rank 68th) or Michigan State (221 ypg, 74th).
“When you’re playing bowl games that are significant, you’re going to have a great opponent,” Fisher said. “They’re going to be able to run it, throw it, do everything.”
A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko also has history with Doeren and N.C. State from his time at Wake Forest from 2014-16.
“They know us, too, so I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage,” Doeren said on a teleconference. “We’re not starting from ground zero on either side here.”
This is the second straight season A&M will face an ACC team to end the season. A year ago, Wake Forest defeated the Aggies 55-52 in the Belk Bowl.
This year’s Gator Bowl could be high scoring because the Wolfpack, a la A&M, have trouble defending the pass. N.C. State allows 271.2 yards passing per game to rank 119th in the country. A&M averages 262 yards passing per game to rank 35th. Sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond has thrown for 2,967 yards with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
N.C. State was 5-3 in the ACC to finish third in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson and Syracuse. The Wolfpack’s losses were to Clemson 41-7, Syracuse 51-41 and Wake Forest 27-23.
Tennessee defeated A&M 3-0 in the 1957 Gator Bowl which was the last game by Paul “Bear” Bryant as A&M’s coach. … N.C. State has a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Gallaspy Jr., (214 carrries-1,012 yards, 18 TDs) and pair of 1,000-yard receivers in juniors Kelvin Harmon (81 receptions-1,186, 7 TDs) and Jakobi Meyers (89-1,028, 4 TDs). Oklahoma is the only other Power Five Conference team with a 3,000-yard passing, a 1,000-yard rusher and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. The last ACC team to that was Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles in 2012. … The only ranked opponent N.C. State played during the season was Clemson, which was third at the time. The Wolfpack’s home game against 12th-ranked West Virginia on Sept. 15 was canceled because of Hurricane Florence. … Fisher is 5-2 in bowl games. He was FSU’s offensive coordinator when the Seminoles ended the 2009 season by beating West Virginia 33-21 in the Gator Bowl in what was Bobby Bowden’s last game. “The game itself is first class,” Fisher said on the teleconference. “The Gator Bowl is as good as it gets. I have great memories of that game, all of the ex-players there, tears in their eyes over what Coach Bowden meant to them. The Gator Bowl means a lot to me.” … Fisher met the local media Sunday night before the team’s banquet.
Wilson wins Heart Award: Senior safety Donovan Wilson was named the Aggie Heart Award winner as the annual team banquet Sunday night.
The Heart Award, voted on by the players, goes to a senior who has completed his eligibility and displays the intangibles such as effort, desire, determination, competitiveness, accountability, leadership and courage.
“Dono is what the Aggie Heart Award is all about,” Fisher said. “He has given everything he has to this program and our football team. For him to bounce back from an injury that kept him out all of last season, to accepting a new head coach and coaching staff, to being a team leader, Donovan Wilson is very worthy of the Aggie Heart Award.”
Heart Award: safety Donovan Wilson, sr.
Mr. Versatile Award: defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, sr.
Captains: C Erik McCoy, jr.; RB Trayveon Williams, jr.; Wilson
Most Improved Award: QB Kellen Mond, soph.
Leadership Award: McCoy; Williams
Unselfish Leadership Award: OL Connor Lanfear, sr.
Top Newcomer Award: TE Jace Sternberger, jr.
Attitude Award: WR Jhamon Ausbon soph.
Skill Blocker Award: Ausbon
Offensive MVP Award: McCoy; Mond; Sternberger; Williams
Defensive Scout Team Player Award: LB Kiante McCoy, fr.
Most Improved Lineman: OL Keaton Sutherland, sr.
Most Improved Award: DL Daylon Mack, sr.
Unselfish Leadership Award: LB Otaro Alaka, sr.
Top Newcomer Award: DL Bobby Brown, fr.
Attitude Award: DL Landis Durham, sr.
Defensive Playmaker Award: LB Tyrel Dodson, jr.
Defensive MVP Award: DL Justin Madubuike, soph.
Offensive Scout Team Player Award: OL Justin Dworaczyk, sr.
Mr. Dependable Skill Award: DB DeShawn Capers-Smith, sr.
Most Improved Award: LB Riley Garner, sr.; WR Roshauud Paul, soph.
Newcomer Award: RB Jashaun Corbin, fr.; LB Brian Johnson, fr.; PK Seth Small, fr.; DL Max Wright, fr.
Most Impactful Award: FB Cullen Gillaspia, sr.
Special Teams MVP Award: P Braden Mann, jr.
Mr. Dependable: DS Austin Frey, sr.
(Award based on attitude and commitment in the classroom, as well as attitude on the field)
Freshman: OL Luke Matthews
Sophomore: OL Dan Moore Jr.
Community Service Award: Garner
Top Conditioned Athlete Award: Mond; LB Braden White, soph.; Williams
Offensive Aggie Award: Ausbon; McCoy; Sternberger
Defensive Aggie Award: Alaka; DB Keldrick Carper, soph.; DL Kingsley Keke, sr.
Specialist Aggie Award: Mann
Newcomer of the Year: TE Trevor Wood, sr.
Freshman Aggie Award: Corbin; Small; DL Max Wright