The two opponents in Saturday's Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl had strangely similar seasons.
Both Northwestern and Texas A&M went into the season with high expectations -- though Texas A&M's were much higher -- both underachieved, both had strong offenses and suspect defenses, and both had problems holding second-half leads all season.
Is this the year that Northwestern ends its eight-game, one-day-short-of-63-year bowl losing streak? WildcatReport's staff weighs in with their opinions.
Northwestern wins if… Ample time to prepare for one opponent has solidified communication in the secondary and there is some improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
Northwestern loses if… A&M uses their current situation to play inspired football and their offense clicks on all cylinders.
The bottom line Is that both of these teams have lost more often than not when leading at half-time, which means neither should be too excited by a fast start. I think the mental toll of the season, coaching changes, and the tragic loss of a teammate will already have the Aggies on the ropes before the game even starts. How they respond mentally, moreso than talent level, will probably be the key to this game.
Prediction Northwestern 45 Texas A&M 38
Game MVP: Dan Persa takes home the trophy with the best performance of his career.
Northwestern wins if… Texas A&M is discombobulated from the coaching shakeup and injuries to Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray limit their rushing threat. Northwestern will also have to get some consistent production from their own backfield.
Northwestern loses if… If the secondary gets picked apart by Ryan Tannehill. Even Persa attacking with Jeremy Ebert and Drake Dunsmore, and getting help from Kain Colter, might not generate enough offense to keep pace if that Texas A&M passing attack gets into a rhythm.
The bottom line Texas A&M is practically playing a home game and could be motivated by their tragic loss of teammate Joe Villavisencio. But I'm more worried about the A&M defense that sacked QBs nearly at will. Persa will have to scramble for his life in order to win a scoring derby with the Aggies.
Prediction Texas A&M 45 Northwestern 31. Another year of frustration...
Game MVP: WR Ryan Swope, who profits from the loss of Jordan Mabin in the NU secondary.
Northwestern wins if… The offensive line can keep Persa clean and the defense plays like it did at Nebraska. The Aggie secondary is solid, but not great, so Persa needs to have the time to pick it apart with short passing routes.
Northwestern loses if… A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a field day while working with no pressure against the Cats' vulnerable secondary. Northwestern's front seven needs to rise to the occasion.
The bottom line Texas A&M has enough weapons to remind me of Michigan State. Tannehill (300-491, 3,415 yards, 28 TDs) is solid. Three receivers, led by Ryan Swope (1,102 yards, 11 TD), have over 500 yards in receptions. Cyrus Gray (1,045 yards, shoulder injury) provides a tremendous punch in the running game. But the real difference maker is All-America kicker Randy Bullock, a threat once the Aggies get within 45 yards of the goal line. Bullock already holds the school's career scoring record (349 points) and is one point shy (127) of tying the season record. Seven of his 25 field goals this season are 45 yards or longer. In 89 kickoffs, he has recorded 32 touchbacks, so he could take Venric Mark out of the game. Texas A&M will be playing with a lot of emotion after the firing of its head coach and the death of senior offensive lineman Joey Villavisencio in a head-on car crash last week..
Prediction Read it and weep Drillcat and Willycat, as much as I would like to see an end to the drought, Texas A&M 38, Northwestern 24
Game MVP: Tannehill
Northwestern wins if… The Wildcat defense comes up as "salty" (Pat Fitzgerald's word, not mine) as they were against Nebraska, and the offense holds onto the ball to keep the ball away from the Aggie offense.
Northwestern loses if… Texas A&M shows up and plays its "A" game. The Aggie offense can score quicker than Derek Jeter, and a Northwestern defense without Jordan Mabin could make for a long afternoon.
The bottom line To me, this game hinges on Texas A&M's mindset. The Aggies are coming off of a disastrous season that got their coach fired, they are playing for a coach who already has another job, and Villavisencio was killed in a car accident right before Christmas. They have a lot of reasons to be disinterested. But if their heads are in the game -- look out.
Prediction Texas A&M 38 Northwestern 34
Game MVP: Persa, who comes up with his finest game as a Wildcat in a losing effort.