TLB Bowl Preview: Texas Bowl

Feature graphic made by Lauren Anikis.

Texas A&M Aggies (8-4) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (8-4)

Where: NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas

When: Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN

Texas A&M

How they got here:

A tremendous 6-0 start, which featured wins against three top-20 teams, had the Aggies up to No. 6 in the country.

The Aggies season started off on the right foot as they defeated then-No. 16 UCLA by a touchdown. A&M then rattled off wins against Auburn, which was unranked at the time but finished the season ranked 14th, Arkansas and an impressive 45-38 overtime victory over then-No. 9 Tennessee.

However, a Week 7 loss to No. 1 Alabama was the start of a rough finish for A&M. The Crimson Tide handled the Aggies easily in the second half of the game, winning 33-14. The Aggies failed to recover, dropping three of their final four contests with their only win coming against UTSA.

Why they can win:

Texas A&M’s defense is loaded with experienced and talented playmakers. Defensive end Myles Garrett is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft after an 8.5-sack season. Behind Garrett, the Aggies have arguably the best safety tandem in college football. Justin Evans picked off four passes and is projected to be a second or third-round in the NFL Draft while junior Armani Watts had two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Meanwhile, offensively the Aggies have had more success running the football than in recent years. Their success is due in large part to freshman phenom Trayveon Williams, who ran for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season in College Station. His counterpart, Keith Ford, ran for over 500 yards while quarterback Trevor Knight accounted for 10 rushing touchdowns.

A&M’s 5.6 yards per carry ranks 13th in the nation while its 212.1 rushing yards per game ranks 33rd. The Aggies running game will be challenged against a Kansas State defense that allowed just 121.1 rushing yards per game, the 14th fewest in the country.

If the Aggies are able to win their fifth bowl game in the last six years, it will likely be because of a solid performance by their defense. A&M has forced 2.1 takeaways per game in 2016, the 12th most in the country. However, it will have a tough task against a Wildcats opponent that only turns the ball over 1.1 times per game.

Player to watch: DE Myles Garrett

Garrett has battled injuries throughout the 2016 season, but that has not held back the 6-foot-5, 252-pound defensive end. The junior displayed his incredible pass rushing skills all season long, but especially in a 4.5-sack performance against a bowl-eligible UTSA. His pass rushing skills have been coupled by his improvements defending the run, as Pro Football Focus graded him fourth among all edge defenders against the run. He will likely be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and a solid bowl game performance could solidify his status as a can’t-miss prospect.

Kansas State

How they got here:

Kansas State reached an 8-4 record by beating teams it was supposed to beat. The Wildcats’ four losses were to teams that finished in the College Football Playoff rankings: No. 18 Stanford, No. 16 West Virginia, No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 12 Oklahoma State.

The Wildcats took care of business against everyone else, though, winning all eight of their other games, including six conference victories. They wrapped up the season winners of their last three, including road wins of 21 and 24 points against bowl-eligible foes Baylor and TCU respectively.

If the Wildcats are able to top Texas A&M and win just their second bowl game since 2002, it would be their first win against a team with more than six wins.

Why they can win:

Despite being a part of a Big 12 conference known for its offense, the Wildcats have a solid defensive unit. Kansas State allows just 21.8 points per game, the fewest in the Big 12 and the 22nd fewest in the country. It also has the Big 12’s top rushing defense, allowing only 112.6 rushing yards per game. For comparison, the next closest team in the conference is Oklahoma, which allows over 160 rushing yards per game.

These impressive numbers are thanks to many Wildcats. Junior linebacker Elijah Lee leads the team with 98 tackles and has recorded at least eight tackles in eight games. Meanwhile, three Wildcats have intercepted at least three passes while another four have forced at least two fumbles. Arguably the best player on the Kansas State defense is defensive end Jordan Willis, who tied a school record with 11.5 sacks.

Offensively, Kansas State relies on its rushing attack. Led by junior dual-threat quarterback Jesse Ertz, the Wildcats racked up 232.9 rushing yards per game and 36 rushing touchdowns, the most in the Big 12.

Player to watch: DE Jordan Willis

The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year had the best season of his collegiate career in 2016. The 6-foot-5, 258-pound defensive end set career-high marks in sacks (11.5), tackles (48) and tackles for a loss (16.5). He was also vital to a Wildcats defense that was stout against the run. That unit will be tested in the Texas Bowl against Texas A&M’s rushing attack. The Aggies have ran for 257.8 yards per game in victories while they have managed to run for just 137 in losses. If the Wildcats raise the trophy at the end of the game, it will be because Willis and the Kansas State front-seven slows down one of the nation’s premiere ground games.

Edited by Justin Meyer.