The last college football game of 2018 will feature the NC State Wolfpack and the Texas A&M Aggies in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. This 7:30 p.m. start time on New Year’s Eve will be the last of six games played on that Monday to end the calendar year. Texas A&M is -4.5 for this matchup with a total of 58.5.
There are a lot of interesting angles to consider for this bowl game. NC State quarterback Ryan Finley has the makings of an NFL backup quarterback for the next 10+ years as a guy that can sling it around a little bit and stay out of compromising situations. Teams are also likely to be impressed with his interviews. He’ll have two shots to impress with this bowl game and the Senior Bowl.
First-year Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher prepped for Finley and the Wolfpack every year that he was at Florida State, so he is certainly familiar with what Dave Doeren and the underdogs want to do offensively and defensively.
NC State has a shot at its first 10-win season since 2002, which would be a great accomplishment for the players, specifically the seniors, after winning nine games last season for the first time since 2010. Texas A&M’s four losses are against Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Auburn, with only the Clemson game at home, and they largely outplayed the Tigers in that one.
These are two solid teams, but there is an obvious strength of schedule discrepancy to consider here. Per Sagarin, Texas A&M played the fourth-toughest schedule. NC State played the 68th-toughest schedule. It isn’t NC State’s fault that the ACC was down this year, but the game against West Virginia was canceled and Notre Dame was not on the schedule this year like last season.
Statistically, despite the big gap in strength of schedule, these two teams weren’t that far apart in the regular season. NC State racked up 6.22 yards per play, which ranked 30th, and 471 yards per game. Teas A&M was 45th in yards per play at 6.08 and managed 466 yards per game. NC State was 68th in yards per play allowed with 5.71 and Texas A&M was 88th with 5.94. You definitely have to put the year-to-date numbers in the proper context based on the level of competition and that is important in the bowl handicapping process.
It is fair to hold NC State’s strength of schedule against the Wolfpack here, but there are some guys that can play and some guys that need to impress. The most obvious is Finley, who completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 3,789 yards and 24 touchdowns. He did have some problems getting this team into the end zone all three years as the starter with just 59 touchdown passes. Given all the yards, that total does seem a little low. In any event, Finley has eluded sacks and avoided turnovers, two very important things when looking for a bowl upset.
In Finley’s defense from a touchdown standpoint, Reggie Gallaspy had 18 of them on the ground and one more through the air to set a program-record for total TDs in a season rushing/receiving. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark with over 200 in the blowout win over ECU. It was also a banner day for Jakobi Meyers, who caught 89 passes, a school record, and also Kelvin Harmon, who led the team with 1,186 yards. This is an efficient and skill-heavy offense.
NC State did a great job of stopping the run this season. The Wolfpack ranked 23rd in yards per carry allowed at 3.53. Of course, that wasn’t nearly as good at the Texas A&M defense, which ranked ninth with 3.19 yards per carry allowed.
One big detriment for the Aggies this season was that they simply didn’t force enough turnovers. NC State only had nine interceptions, but Texas A&M only had five. Only Coastal Carolina, USC, Hawaii, Army, Duke, and Oregon State had fewer picks. SEC QBs posted a 19/2 TD/INT ratio against the Texas A&M defense and the Aggies gave up a lot of big plays. That should open the door for Finley and his two 1,000-yard receivers.
Kellen Mond was less efficient with the football, as he only completed 57.6 percent of his passes with a 23/8 TD/INT ratio. While Mond is a decent player, Jimbo Fisher’s biggest goal in recruiting this offseason is to get a quarterback. The second biggest is to make sure that he can replace Trayveon Williams if the junior bolts for the NFL. Williams has 1,524 rushing yards so far this season and had eight games with over 100 yards. He rushed for six yards per carry and was clearly the catalyst for this offense.
How will NC State stack up against Williams? Fisher did a great job improving the A&M offensive line, but this is a solid and stout defensive front for the Wolfpack.
This is a really compelling game with a lot of interesting individual matchups. It also makes it something of a high-variance handicap, since the better quarterback and wide receivers are clearly on the NC State side, the running back edge goes to the Aggies, and the defensive edge seems to fall on the Texas A&M side as well, at least given the difference in level of competition faced.
Gator Bowl Free Pick: Texas A&M Aggies -4.5
I can assure you that there are much better betting opportunities in the bowl season than this game. There are some NFL dudes on the field for both teams and what I believe are two solid, but unspectacular, coaches in Jimbo Fisher and Dave Doeren. Texas A&M’s strength of schedule, the losses, and the way those losses looked give the Aggies the nod here.
A&M was a two-point conversion away from beating Clemson and the better team. When A&M played Alabama, they were the only team to give the Crimson Tide some semblance of a game up to that point. The Aggies outplayed and outgained Auburn, but were -3 in turnover margin. The Mississippi State game off of a bye was a bad look. NC State doesn’t generate a lot of takeaways and played a really weak schedule.
The suggested pick here is the Aggies, but you may want to look at this game more in the context of bowl pools rather than betting on it.