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2021 Orange Bowl: Texas A&M to Face North Carolina for the First Time Ever

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Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Texas A&M Aggies have missed the College Football Playoff.

Sure it’s a disappointment, but there’s no use in fixating on the decision while there’s a game to be preparing for. Especially when it’s the biggest postseason game that the Aggies have played in years, if not decades.

2021 Orange Bowl

So it’s time to take a break from rage-tweeting and it’s time to stop muttering the words “Gary Barta” and “ESPN” in tandem with your preferred expletives. Focus on what is to come: Texas A&M will be playing the North Carolina Tar Heels on January 2, 2021, in the 2021 Orange Bowl. This is their first appearance in the bowl since 1944 and their first-ever matchup with North Carolina.

And what happened in that 1944 Orange Bowl matchup?  Well, the Aggies suffered a 19-14 defeat at the hands of then-non-conference opponent LSU

Not exactly a reason to break out the confetti and champagne.

Rush Hour

A&M fans have reason to expect a different result this time, however. 77 years ago the Aggies’ rushing attack was snuffed, with both of their touchdowns coming through the air. This season, A&M has a monster of a backfield led by first-team All-SEC running back Isaiah Spiller, who will be looking to reach the 1000 yard mark as he takes the field against the Tar Heels.

But the Aggies’ secret is their depth. That aforementioned “monster of a backfield” is surely a Hydra, as their rushing offense has had anywhere from one to four heads depending on the situation. Spiller is backed up by fellow running backs Ainias Smith and Devon Achane as well as quarterback Kellen Mond, all of whom have over 200 yards on the ground this year. 

Combine those athletes with a Joe Moore Award-finalist offensive line affectionately dubbed the “Maroon Goons” and sprinkle in an inconsistent and depleted Tar Heel defense that gave up 53 points to Wake Forest and another 45 to Virginia Tech and you’ve got yourself the recipe for an Aggie game plan consisting of enough punches up the gut to make Rocky Balboa blush.

The Talented Mr. Smith

There is one noteworthy performance that sets the 1944 Orange Bowl apart from a historical record filled with long-forgotten bowl games that haven’t been relevant in decades. Tiger tailback Steve Van Buren managed to score all 19 of LSU’s points: two rushing touchdowns, another passing, and an extra point for good measure.

While I seriously doubt that the 2021 edition of the game will see a performance quite that dominating, Smith has a chance to put on a similarly multifaceted showing. After making the switch to running back from receiver before last year’s Texas Bowl, Smith has been a valuable asset in the Aggies’ offense; his 10 touchdowns make him the team’s second most prolific scorer, after only kicker Seth Small

Smith has been just as much of a weapon in the passing game as he has in the aforementioned rushing attack: 439 yards receiving to his 293 rushing. As both A&M’s second leading rusher along with his position as a favorite target of quarterback Kellen Mond, he’s a versatile threat that can fill whatever hole the offense happens to need filled.

Odds are we won’t be seeing Smith score every single point of the Aggies total by the end of the game. But I’ll say he’ll put on a show in Miami. Look for him to have a breakout game against a North Carolina defense preoccupied with other threats.

Bad, Bad, Coach Mack Brown

This is normally where I’d throw in a few facts about A&M’s historical record against North Carolina. Except there isn’t one. This is the first meeting between the two schools, a fact that is surprising considering the Aggies have played six games against ACC schools since 2013 (with another two scheduled). 

However, there will be a familiar face on the opposite sideline: none other than Mack Brown. As head coach of the Texas Longhorns, Brown dominated the Aggies to the tune of a 10-4 record in the rivalry until A&M’s move to the SEC halted the series. 

Will having experience against A&M a decade ago provide any competitive advantage? Of course not. Is there a deep seated hatred between Brown and A&M? Nope. In fact, Brown praised the school, the team, and its turnaround at the hands of head coach Jimbo Fisher. Both coaches have been warm and welcoming toward one another, so there’s no Hollywood worthy gripping tale of rivalry and hate to be found there.

But much like an elephant, the fans never forget. Having a chance to beat Mack Brown himself will be cathartic for many longtime supporters who’ve suffered years of Battered Aggie Syndrome at his hands. After enduring years of mediocrity and Kevin Sumlin’s endless purgatory of 8-5 seasons, let’s let them have this one.

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Ian is a contributor to Overtime Heroics covering NASCAR. A stream of his cold takes and random thoughts can be found on Twitter @texiancurtis