Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma, 2013 Cotton Bowl preview: The fifth BCS bowl

USA TODAY Sports

In terms of rankings, this is the third-biggest game of the bowl season. Questions, players to watch and predictions below. 8 p.m. ET, FOX.

5 Non-Quarterbacks To Watch

Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M, RSFr.) and Ryan Swope (WR, Texas A&M, Sr.). On almost any team in the country, Mike Evans would have easily been the most exciting, "the future is bright" redshirt freshman on the roster. Instead, the receiver from Galveston chose A&M, where he served as a primary complement to the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, quarterback Johnny Manziel. Manziel can make his receivers' jobs easy at times -- just keep running around out there, and eventually I'll scramble around and find you -- but Evans and the steady Swope certainly helped him out quite a few times.

The two combined for 45 percent of A&M's targets in 2012, catching 139 of 199 passes for 1,845 yards and 12 touchdowns. Combine their output with about 23 carries per game from the trio of Ben Malena, Christine Michael and Trey Williams (combined: 1,504 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns) and protection from what might be the best offensive line in college football, and you've got a nearly unstoppable attack, and for reasons that go well beyond Manziel's magic.

Tons of Cotton Bowl previews from our Texas A&M and Oklahoma bloggers

Javon Harris (SS, Oklahoma, Sr.). Manziel's scrambling ability puts inordinate stress on a secondary to continue guarding receivers while keeping two collective eyes on the backfield, and eventually the DBs wilt. So while all eyes will clearly be on Manziel, the battle between Evans and Swope (and to a lesser extent, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Malcome Kennedy) and OU's talented secondary -- ball-hawking safeties Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris (combined: seven interceptions, seven passes broken up, five tackles for loss), corners Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst (combined: four interceptions, 20 passes broken up, 3.5 tackles for loss), nickel back Gabe Lynn, etc. -- could decide the game. Harris is highlighted here because he finished the regular season with a team-leading five interceptions, and a scrambling quarterback can sometimes lose sight of a roaming safety.

Oklahoma's secondary carried what was a rather unique defensive effort in 2012, Mike Stoops' first year back in Norman as defensive coordinator. The Sooners ranked a healthy 13th in Def. F/+ despite what was frankly a rather passive, reactive front seven. Jefferson and Harris led the Sooners in tackles, and Hurst and Colvin were third and fourth; typically, if the secondary has to do that much work, you aren't looking at a good defense. But for Oklahoma, their output was mostly by design. Linebackers Tom Wort and Corey Nelson made the occasional play, but the defensive line's job was almost like that of a 3-4 line: just occupy blockers and let others make the tackles. Starting ends Chuka Ndulue and David King made just eight tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, paltry totals that, again, typically signify an iffy defense.

But this secondary-first approach might be an interesting counter to A&M's speed. Oklahoma cannot count on much of a pass rush, but if the line can just maintain the pocket and contain Manziel to some degree, the back seven might be fast enough to make some plays.

Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M, Jr.). Hey, speaking of fast and interesting ... say goodbye to Moore, a sure Top 10 pick in April's NFL Draft who gave A&M's defense a personality almost completely counter to that of Oklahoma's. Moore, a defensive end (and part-time outside linebacker), led A&M in tackles with 67.0 and was one of the biggest defensive playmakers in the country, logging 20 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries and blocking two kicks just for good measure. The 250-pounder is big enough to play college end and more than fast enough to play a strong OLB at the NFL level. He had 28 percent of A&M's TFLs and 42 percent of its sacks.

He is a missile, and he will likely get to know Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones pretty well. He is really fun to watch. So watch him. (And keep an eye on similarly active tackle Spencer Nealy, as well. Pay too much attention to Moore, and Nealy will wreck your plans.)

Jalen Saunders (WR, Oklahoma, Jr.). Like defensive tackle Stacy McGee, Saunders was arrested in December. Unlike McGee, however, Saunders will play in the Cotton Bowl. That's good news for Oklahoma, which has seen its passing game take off since Saunders' introduction into the lineup. The Fresno State transfer was suddenly deemed eligible after four games, and if he'd maintained his eight-game average over 12, he'd have ended up with 80 catches for 1,150 yards. At 14.5 yards per catch with an unbelievable 80 percent catch rate, he was one of the nation's best receivers.

With Saunders in the lineup, everything else falls into place for the Sooners' passing game. Kenny Stills and Justin Brown make tough catches and move the chains on passing downs, Saunders catches short passes on standard downs, backs Trey Millard and Damien Williams catch about five check-down passes per game, and occasionally Saunders or Sterling Shepard gets downfield for a big play. The short passing game will be vital for Oklahoma, especially considering that the Sooners pass almost exclusively on passing downs (and that Moore will be looming on every single passing down), and Saunders plays a major role in that.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. You like fun football, don't you? What's not to like about this one? You've got two fun, fast offenses playing in front of what will be an intense, evenly split Jerry World atmosphere. Oh yeah, and the Heisman winner, one of the most unique players any of us have seen, will be taking about half of the game's snaps. This is what all bowl games are supposed to be.

2. This is a fifth BCS bowl. These teams' combined BCS ranking is 20. Only the BCS title game and one of four BCS bowls (the Fiesta Bowl) can trump that. Considering the size of the stadium, the success of the teams and what will likely be strong ratings (the day after the fourth BCS bowl), this will probably feel more like a BCS bowl than two of the actual ones did.

3. Hello again. Here's what I said in my BYU-San DIego State preview:

One thing about conference realignment: It can give us some exciting bowl matchups between former conference mates. Obviously this season's Cotton Bowl (Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma) is the best example of that, but the Poinsettia Bowl also allows us an opportunity to see former rivals face off.

Oklahoma and A&M were only conference rivals for 16 years (1996-11), but they played in quite a few memorable games, from A&M's near-upset of the eventual national champion Sooners in 2000, to their actual upset of the 12-2 Sooners in 2002, to Oklahoma's 77-0 response in 2003, to three straight tight Oklahoma wins from 2004-06, to A&M's 33-19 statement win in 2010 (one that prompted them to get overrated heading into 2011). It might take a little while to click in your head that this isn't actually a conference battle.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. OU's nearly no-name receiving corps. Saunders has easily been the most explosive Sooner receiver, but Saunders, Brown, Stills and even Shepard and Millard have all had their share of big moments in 2012. A&M's young secondary has survived the 2012 season better than I initially anticipated, but its depth will be tested severely. Landry Jones takes what the defense gives him, even if that means checking down to his third or fourth option. Will the secondary options be consistently available?

2. The other runners. Not including sacks, Johnny Manziel rushed 162 times for an absurd 1,310 yards (8.1 per carry) and 19 touchdowns. His instincts are different than anybody else's in the college game, and it doesn't make sense that he does some of the things he does. That said, the 23 carries per game taken by actual A&M running backs are almost as important. They both soften up defenses and keep them honest, and, of course, they can occasionally go for long yardage themselves. If you can slow down the rest of the A&M running game, you force Manziel to carry the game. He might just do it, but you have to try. Force passing downs, maintain as much of a pocket you can, and take your chances.

3. How do you stop Johnny Manziel? I mean ... I guess I just outlined how you can try, but only LSU, Florida and, to a slightly lesser extent, Alabama did it for any sustained amount of time. LSU and Florida both took some early blows, adapted to A&M's speed -- speed from both its players and its per-play pace -- and eventually contained the Aggies. Oklahoma doesn't have as fast and physical a defense as the Tigers or Gators, however, but they do have a much better understanding of the hurry-up offense. (Kevin Sumlin is, after all, a former Bob Stoops assistant.) The Sooners won't be able to follow the LSU/Florida script because they don't have the same type of defense; but whatever they do try could be interesting.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Oklahoma by 0.6.
Bill's Pick: Texas A&M by 7. In the end, I think Oklahoma will make some big plays, but I know the Aggies will.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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