If there’s one belief that Texas A&M and North Carolina share heading into the Orange Bowl, it’s that there’s no use in looking backward.
For the Aggies, that means not lamenting missing the College Football Playoff.
For the Tar Heels, that means not fixating on four top players skipping this game.
A chance to end 2020 seasons and kickstart 2021 campaigns in major-bowl fashion awaits on Saturday night when Texas A&M (8-1, No. 5 AP and CFP) meets North Carolina (8-3, No. 14 AP, No. 13 CFP) in the 87th edition of the Orange Bowl.
“I always say this: The Orange Bowl is as good as it gets,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said Friday. “To be able to come to South Florida and play in such a prestigious game with such great history, and the great players and coaches, people who have participated in this game, it’s phenomenal.
“We want to finish this season off the right way.”
When this matchup was put together, it looked like the quintessential collision of strength vs. strength: North Carolina, featuring two of the top running backs in the country, against a Texas A&M rush defense that is among the nation’s best.
Thing is, neither of those running backs — Michael Carter and Javonte Williams — chose to play in the Orange Bowl. They opted out, as did wide receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt.
“That’s 4,000 yards worth of offense and our leading tackler on defense and two captains,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “This is new for me because I’ve never had a guy not play in a ball game. So, what we’ve done is we’ve handled it like guys are injured. It’s next man up. Got to do the best you can do.”
Carter and Williams combined for nearly 2,400 rushing yards this season including 544 yards, an FBS record for teammates in one game, against Miami in their regular season finale at Hard Rock Stadium last month. With them gone, it means even more pressure will be on North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.
“People aren’t really giving us a chance anymore, especially with these guys opting out, so they’re probably thinking it’s going to be a blowout,” Howell said. “We know people are saying that about us, but we really don’t care about that. We know the guys we have.”
Texas A&M wanted to be in Hard Rock Stadium later this month, playing in the national title game on Jan. 11. But the Aggies were one spot away from making the four-team CFP field, a disappointment that they had to move on from quickly to get ready for the Orange Bowl.
“I think our mindset each and every week is that we have something to prove,” Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond said. “I don’t think it’s anything to prove to other people, but we just want to continue to get better as a team and continue to grow, and I think that’s just the main thing in our mindset each and every week that we play.”
Here’s some of what to know going into the Orange Bowl:
North Carolina is only a 7 1/2-point underdog, but after the opt-outs the Tar Heels know they won’t be a popular choice. It could be a rallying cry on Saturday night. “Not one person in America is going to pick us to win, outside of our room,” Brown said.
Fisher is 6-0 at Hard Rock Stadium; 4-0 as Florida State’s coach against Miami on the Hurricanes’ home field, 2-0 with the Seminoles in Orange Bowls. He said coming back rekindled great memories. “I’ve been very blessed to come out with some great outcomes. Hopefully, we’ll have another one,” Fisher said.
The schools have never met in football, though they have some postseason history against one another. Some notable examples: Texas A&M is 2-0 against North Carolina in both the NCAA men’s basketball and baseball tournaments, and the Tar Heels are 4-1 against the Aggies in NCAA women’s soccer tournament matchups.
Of the 44 players starting on offense and defense in the Orange Bowl, it’s possible more than half will be either a freshman or a sophomore, based on team depth charts.
The Orange Bowl Courage Award winner this year is Alex Charlton, who left his job as an Arkansas State defensive analyst and decided to fight the coronavirus pandemic as a nurse. Charlton has worked in New York and Texas on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19.
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