The big 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl breakdown: Texas A&M's edge is a little bigger

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Expect a shootout in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl (Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN), where both Texas A&M's and Duke's offensive lines (and quarterbacks) hold solid advantages. Still, A&M's advantages are a little bigger, and the Aggies should win as a result.

There are a lot of different paths to a bowl game, some disappointing, some exhilarating, some neutral. The 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl finds two teams that came from completely different directions.

In June, we projected Texas A&M to the Cotton Bowl, and even that seemed perhaps a bit disappointing. The Aggies were returning all-world quarterback (and headline-maker) Johnny Manziel, and if they were to beat Alabama in mid-September, they could quickly become a national title contender.

Meanwhile, in early-August I proclaimed that Duke had minimal margin for error when it came to winning six games and reaching even the most minor of bowls. Sure, it could happen, but it would potentially take some luck.

A&M lost to Alabama, then lost to Auburn, LSU, and Missouri, too, thanks mostly to a dreadful defense (and with help from some nagging Manziel injuries) and finished 8-4, terribly disappointing considering where the bar was initially set.

Duke, meanwhile, lost back-to-back home games to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh in September, as expected ... and then didn't lose again until December. The Blue Devils won eight games in a row to finish 10-2 and win the ACC's Coastal Division. (Coastal titles: Duke 1, Miami 0.) They got whipped in the conference title game by Florida State, but that hardly mattered. They have won 10 games in a season for the first time ever, and with a Chick-fil-A win, they could finish ranked for the first time since 1961.

We could twist ourselves in knots thinking about the effect of intangibles in this game -- Will A&M mail it in because it wanted a bigger bowl? Will Johnny Manziel play out of his mind in reportedly his last collegiate start? Will Duke just be happy to be there? -- but on paper, this is a pretty interesting matchup.

Duke is decent at everything and great at nothing, and A&M seems either great or terrible at most things. Can the volatile Aggies take care of business and lock down win No. 9 for just the fourth time in 15 years? Can the steady Blue Devils raise the bar even further and take home win No. 11?

How they got here

Duke's season to date

From 2000-'07, the Duke Blue Devils went 10-82. Carl Franks was let go after five seasons, and Ted Roof lasted only four. Duke had long been one of the hardest BCS-conference jobs, if not the hardest, but that didn't scare David Cutcliffe.

The former Ole Miss coach won as many games in his first season (four) as Roof had in four, but his program stagnated a bit while he tried to put the pieces together. Duke won just 11 games from 2009-'11, seemingly running into a bit of a glass ceiling. But an experienced Blue Devil squad sprinted out to 6-2 in 2012 to lock down bowl eligibility, then put on a fun show in the Belk Bowl before falling to Cincinnati.

Having lost a lot of solid contributors from the 2012 squad, it appeared that Duke might either take a step backwards or at least struggle to move forward after the breakthrough 6-7 season. And it didn't help much when Duke lost to Georgia Tech and Pitt and struggled to get past Troy to move to 3-2.

But easy wins over Navy (at home) and Virginia (on the road) made bowl eligibility a likelihood, and a 13-10 upset at Virginia Tech redefined the season. The Blue Devils pulled away from NC State and Miami at home, then held on for dear life in road wins over Wake Forest and North Carolina to clinch the division title. They got rocked, 45-7, by Florida State, but they found a pretty cushy landing spot in Atlanta.

A&M's season to date

The warning signs were appearing pretty early. Sure, the A&M offense was looking as good as ever, but the Aggies allowed 509 yards (5.8 per play) and 31 points to Rice, then 390 (6.7) and 28 points to Sam Houston. Despite Mike Evans posting just about the best receiving day you'll ever see against Alabama, A&M allowed 568 yards (8.6) and fell to the Tide, 49-42.

We knew A&M was replacing a lot from its front seven in 2013, but it was difficult to predict that the departures would mean this much. A&M sank from 15th in Def. F/+ to 85th and just found itself in too many shootouts to survive. The Aggies lost, 45-41, to Auburn in mid-October, and the offense gave out late in the season, scoring just 31 combined points in losses to LSU and Missouri.

Even with the defensive deficiencies, A&M was close to something greater. The Aggies were just 1-3 in games decided by one possession but just put Manziel under too much pressure to make plays late in games. Less than 100 percent healthy, he faltered a few times, but A&M still drew a pretty solid bowl, a future member of the College Football Playoff's upper-tier rotation.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Duke 10-3 24 36 40 44 40
Texas A&M 8-4 21 22 -12 3 85 11
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Duke Offense 27 61 41 33 93 70 96
A&M Defense 52 74 69 50 56 96 77
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Duke Offense 19 73 10 22 16 18 39
A&M Defense 66 116 6 81 104 56 118
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
A&M Offense 5 4 4 6 10 5 67
Duke Defense 83 33 87 40 47 69 110
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
A&M Offense 3 2 46 18 38 16 67
Duke Defense 110 106 80 119 74 92 44
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Duke Special Teams 63 45 110 38 60 16
A&M Special Teams 9 26 9 7 55 100

Duke's biggest advantages:

Duke's offensive line is better than A&M's defensive line. Duke's offensive stats above are relatively mundane. The Blue Devils are good on standard downs, above average running and throwing, mediocre on passing downs. They take advantage of bad defenses and struggle against good ones. But the offensive line has been a particular strength in 2013, and that's a good thing against an Aggie defense that was too young and uncertain to make noise up front.

Most of Duke's biggest advantages come in the line stats above. They open up holes in run-blocking, and A&M allows that. They keep defenders out of the backfield, but A&M doesn't really get many there anyway. And with help from a healthy dose of short passes, they protect their passer with aplomb, which is something else A&M doesn't force you to worry about much.

Duke's line is pretty big (average: 6'4, 302) and capable, with right guard Laken Tomlinson snagging second-team all-conference honors. It should do well against an A&M front that is meant for aggressiveness but managed only 64 tackles for loss and 20 sacks this season. You still have to be mindful of the presence of players like rush end Julien Obioha and end Gavin Stansbury, but this is not last year's A&M line. Duke should get plenty of opportunities to implement its game plan, whatever that might be.

The Blue Devils make just enough big plays. In true young and inconsistent form, A&M's biggest problem this year was big plays. The Aggies showed some potential growth this fall, allowing just 5.6 yards per play over the final five games; yes, that included games against UTEP and Vanderbilt with backup quarterbacks, so that helped, but there still might be some improvement there after the Aggies allowed an incredible 6.7 yards per play in their first seven games. Regardless, even with this improvement, big plays were a problem.

Duke isn't just incredible in the big-play department, but the Blue Devils might make enough. They spread the field horizontally to occasionally beat you vertically. They throw short passes with tackle-breaking potential, and they attempt the occasional double move. It's a sound offense, one that got coordinator Kurt Roper hired away by Florida.

And against a defense with occasional discipline issues*, the Blue Devils could find some success. Six Blue Devils caught at least one pass of 40 yards, and while leading running back Jela Duncan's suspension might hurt, his absence paves the way for more explosive options in Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell. Duke will have to break off some big gains to keep up with A&M, but that's far from impossible.

* Discipline issues of a different sort: linebacker and leading tackler Darian Claiborne is suspended after a drug arrest.

A&M's biggest advantages:

It's hard to describe how much better A&M's offensive line is than Duke's defensive line. Third in Adjusted Line yards vs. 110th. Second in Opportunity Rate vs. 106th. Eighteenth in Stuff Rate versus 119th. Thirty-eighth in Adj. Sack Rate vs. 74th.

Especially when the running game is involved, A&M's offensive line, led by tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi, should dominate a Duke defensive front that has been a bit of a weakness for the defense as a whole this year. Duke knows how to close out drives once it has leveraged you into must-pass situations, and the Blue Devils are strong at preventing the big, back-breaking gains, but you can push them around up front a bit, and A&M probably will. Senior Duke end Kenny Anunike makes his share of plays (13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks), but he doesn't get much help, especially against the run.

For all we talk about Johnny Manziel and the Mike Evans combination, the Aggies still want to run the ball, too. A foursome of A&M running backs (Ben Malena, Trey Williams, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams) averages 22 carries per game, and Manziel himself will add in nine or 10 more. Duke might be able to prevent the 30-yard gains on the ground, but there should be plenty of eight-yarders. And if A&M remains in a comfortable run-or-pass situation, the Aggies will score and score.

A&M's offensive advantages are bigger than Duke's. Duke quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette should have time to do their thing. Receivers Jamison Crowder and Braxton Deaver should have some break-one-tackle-and-go opportunities. The Duke line should be able to create holes, protect its quarterbacks, etc. Absolutely.

But if the Aggies are dialed in and not lost in a wave of negative intangibles (something it would be silly to predict because intangibles are really hard to predict), their offensive advantages are bigger. They have Manziel, first of all. But their line has a bigger advantage over Duke's defensive front than Duke has over A&M's. And if he's dialed in, Mike Evans is the best receiver Ross Cockrell and the solid Duke secondary have faced this year; plus, there are enough other weapons (three other Aggies caught at least 44 passes, and three more caught at least 17) to test the depth of the secondary in ways most cannot.

That Duke won at Virginia Tech (No. 21 in the F/+ rankings) is a sure sign that the Blue Devils can overcome A&M (No. 22) as well. But A&M is the opposite of Tech in about every way; the Blue Devils beat Tech while scoring 13 points. They'll probably need at least 30-something to withstand the Aggies, and I'm not sure their own advantages are significant enough for that to happen.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Next year's preseason polls will be an interesting test of achievement and experience versus the power of a name brand. On Duke's first- and second-string offense for the bowl game, there are only three seniors, and one is a backup center. On defense, there are six. There will be rebuilding on the defensive line, but that was already a bit of a weak spot. Unless there is a huge drop-off related to Roper's departure, Duke's strengths should by all means be stronger next year.

That said, it would still be surprising to see the Blue Devils ranked in the preseason without a solid upset of A&M in Atlanta. As it was with Stanford and other non-traditional powers, it will take a few more years of success before we assume Duke will succeed; plus, as the F/+ rankings attest, Duke's only good, not great, anyway. That said, a win over A&M would get the Blue Devils pretty close to the preseason top 25.

As for A&M, it will most likely be time for a rebuilt identity next fall. Kevin Sumlin has recruited quite well, and all sorts of former blue-chippers will be in position to step forward, but both Manziel and Evans are draft-eligible, and the smart money right now is on both leaving. Throw in the loss of Jake Matthews, Ben Malena, and two other starting receivers, and you've got a reset on offense. The defense, so incredibly young, will return almost entirely intact, so you've got a strength-gets-weaker, weakness-gets-stronger situation.

If A&M's defense shuts Duke down for the most part, that will likely help preseason projections significantly; otherwise, it's possible the Aggies start just outside the top 25.

Summary

F/+ Projection: A&M 42, Duke 35
Win Probability: A&M 70%

The 12-point line feels about right to me. A&M wins if its defense makes enough stops and the offense does as well as I assume it will. The Aggies could pull away late to make a competitive game look less so. A&M moves quickly and scores in batches, so if the advantages are there, they'll really be there.

Still, A&M's defense has to show up. The Aggies were encouraging at times late in the year, but if you were able to find a crack, they couldn't really prevent you from exploiting it for a few big plays. Duke will have that opportunity, especially if the offensive line can

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