HOUSTON, Texas - Texas A&M probably feels right at home. Despite a 7-5 record on the season, the Aggies are hoping to impress their hometown crowd just up the road from College Station as they take on Oklahoma State in the Texas Bowl.
With the drive from College Station to NRG Stadium roughly 100 miles away, A&M will be greeted by the sounds of thousands of screaming Aggie fans when they enter the field Friday night. They could need that hometown spark to dismantle the Cowboys' (8-4, 5-4 Big 12) impressive run game. Both teams won games they were expected to but dropped a loss to a team that could have salvaged their season.
Mike Gundy and Jimbo Fisher will meet on the gridiron for the second time this decade. The two enticed fans in the Lone Star State during the 2014 season when Fisher's Florida State roster went down the wire against Gundy's hot staff. Both are regarded for their personas in the game and how they helped transform programs into consistent standout rosters.
Either team could be up for a massive victory in the must-see event, so here are several storylines A&M fans should be on the lookout for heading into Friday's action.
Holy Hubbard of Mercy
A&M's defense was led by an impressive run game. The team ranked in the top 30 of all NCAA rosters in yards allowed on the ground this season. While the running back in the SEC impressed, Friday could feature the team's toughest challenge yet.
Sophomore running back Chuba Hubbard captivated the audience's eyes during his season in Stillwater. The Alberta, Canada native led the nation with 1,936 rushing yards and scored 21 touchdowns on his way to a unanimous All-American campaign.
"That guy can run it. He's got power, he's got speed, and he can make you miss," Fisher said. "He's a complete back. He just knows how to tempo run.
"There's nothing he can't do on the football field. He's a complete player. A complete player."
The Aggies will be without their top run-stopper in defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. The junior announced earlier this month that he would declare for the NFL Draft and not play in the bowl game. A&M will rely heavily on Bobby Brown and Jayden Peavy to contain the middle of the field and hold Hubbard back.
Spiller Splits Carries With?
Running back has been an area of need for the Aggies all season. On Friday, A&M fans might expect to see more passing from Kellen Mond due to their lack of a run game —or lack of players at the position.
Fisher announced Sunday that backup running back Cordarrian Richardson would not play Friday night due to undisclosed reasons. Richardson has not left the program and will return to the team following Friday's action.
With the loss of a second runner, the Aggies will rely heavily on freshman Isaiah Spiller. The Spring native started in eight of the 12 games this season and led the team with 869 yards and nine touchdowns. Still, without a secondary runner, who are the Aggies to rely on should anything happen?
Sophomore quarterback turned running back Connor Blumrick would likely be the second option for now. The 6-5 former gunslinger practiced with the second team offense during the team's walkthrough during Sunday's warmups. Although his carries are limited, perhaps he could be a game-changer for A&M's offense.
Double Gunslingers for Cowboys?
The Aggies could be prepping for two different quarterbacks when it comes to Friday's outing. On the one hand, the A&M could face Dru Brown, a transfer from Hawaii. On the other, regular starter Spencer Sanders could return in time to make an appearance.
Sanders suffered a thumb injury on his throwing hand that would require surgery following Week 12's win over Kansas. Brown stepped in against West Virginia, going 22-of-29 passing for 196 yards, two touchdowns in the team victory.
Gundy announced earlier last month that Sanders has progressed and could be healthy enough to suit up against the Aggies for the game. Depending on how his week progresses, the team could also use a system of both Brown and Sanders to help ease the long-term starter back into playing time.
“That part we don’t know,” Gundy said of splitting playing time earlier this month. “(Sanders) just got back to practicing. Got his cast off and was back out there. We need to watch him and see where we’re at. But I would fully expect both players to play in the game.”
Final Aggie Anthem?
Madubuike and Hubbard are two different cases when it comes to their NFL stock. The Aggies defender declared before the game. The Pokes star runner still could decide his status following Friday's action.
Several other Aggies could be on a similar path as Hubbard as the final game ticks away. Wide receivers Jhamon Ausbon, Kendrick Rogers and Quartney Davis are all juniors and could see their stock improve with a big game. Add on the additions of young talent such as Ainias Smith and five-star recruit Demond Demas and one could be playing in their final game as an Aggie.
On defense, linebacker Buddy Johnson could be thinking the same plan. Despite leading the team in tackles (71), he still could return for his senior season. Both starting linebackers in Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka declared early and went undrafted following the NFL combine. Johnson could follow in their footsteps and head to the next level should he shine against the Cowboys' offense.
The trend of players sitting out for bowl games has been relevant for several seasons. Some will honor their commitment to the school and play for a chance at one last victory. However, just because someone is playing the bowl game doesn't mean they'll be returning to collegiate ranks as the year comes to a close.