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AutoZone Liberty Bowl primer: West Virginia vs. Texas A&M

12/23/2014

One week into the season, expectations soared for Texas A&M after the Aggies destroyed South Carolina on the road. That result, however, proved to be a bit of a mirage, as the Aggies struggled through the heart of their SEC schedule.

In Morgantown, expectations also ballooned after the Mountaineers knocked off fourth-ranked Baylor on Oct. 18. But two weeks later with ESPN "College GameDay" in the house, West Virginia couldn't hold on to a nine-point fourth quarter lead against TCU, which ignited a three-game November losing streak for the Mountaineers.

Still, in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, both teams have the chance to finish their roller-coaster seasons with an eighth win and on a high note heading into 2015.

Below, SEC reporter Sam Kahn Jr. and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down this Memphis matchup:

How West Virginia can control the game: Getting All-American wideout Kevin White going early and often is key for the Mountaineers. As White goes, so go the Mountaineers. During White’s amazing seven-game 100-yard receiving streak to begin the season, the Mountaineers claimed one of the top offenses in the country. But late in the season, as White cooled off, so did the West Virginia offense, prompting the Mountaineers to drop three of their final four games. The Aggies are hardly effective defending the pass, with the SEC’s 12th-ranked pass defense. So West Virginia should be able to get White the ball in the opening quarter. That in turn should open up the rest of the offensive attack. -- Trotter

How Texas A&M can control the game: Getting off to a fast start is important for the Aggies. This season, when the Aggies have led after the first quarter, they are 5-1; when they’ve trailed after a quarter, they are 0-3. A team with young players at many key positions, particularly quarterback, the Aggies feed off the confidence of having a lead. Beyond that, though it’s known as a pass-happy offense, getting the running game going is critical for Texas A&M. In the Aggies’ seven wins, they averaged 182.8 rushing yards; in their five losses, they averaged only 86.8. Having success in the run game gives the Aggies some semblance of balance offensively and opens things up for quarterback Kyle Allen and his group of receivers to attack all areas of the field. -- Kahn

West Virginia's X factor: After suffering a concussion against Kansas State on Nov. 18, quarterback Clint Trickett is finally expected to play again in the bowl. Still, it remains unclear whether he will start, how much he will play and how effective he can be coming off the head injury. Trickett struggled late in the year before the concussion, but he was also a major reason why the Mountaineers were so successful during the first half of the season. If he can get back to that level when he was among the nation’s leaders in completion percentage, West Virginia will be tough to beat. But if Trickett is ineffective or can’t reclaim his early-season accuracy, the Mountaineers could be in trouble. – Trotter

Texas A&M's X factor: Run defense. The Aggies were been atrocious in this area in their final three games, allowing a whopping 360.6 rushing yards per game. They are 111th nationally and last in the SEC in rush defense, and though West Virginia throws it quite a bit, coach Dana Holgorsen won’t hesitate to run the football (the Mountaineers gained 195 or more rushing yards in four of their final five games this season). The Aggies moved true freshmen Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker into the starting lineup late in the season and saw linebacker play improve, but Walker will miss the Liberty Bowl with an injury, meaning someone like Shaan Washington will have to step up. If the Aggies can’t stop the run, they won’t be able to stop the Mountaineers, period.-- Kahn

What a win would mean for the Mountaineers: All in all, the Mountaineers have already exceeded preseason expectations. Given last season’s struggles and a brutal schedule, just getting to a bowl game seemed like it would be a stretch for this team. But after the surprisingly fast start to conference play, followed by the disappointing three losses in November, this season has a slight sour taste to it for West Virginia fans. A season-ending win against Texas A&M, however, would remove most of that bitterness while giving the program a boost going into the offseason. -- Trotter

What a win would mean for the Aggies: Ending the season on a positive note would be huge for Texas A&M, given how turbulent this season was. The season went sideways after 5-0 start, and there has been plenty of angst from fans in Aggieland as coach Kevin Sumlin has sought out, but has yet to hire, a defensive coordinator and lost out on two key defensive recruits in the process. Sumlin must also find new offensive line and receiver coaches, and next season is shaping up to be a critical one in College Station, as fans are looking for results from three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes as well as the investment of $500 million in football facilities upgrades and $5 million a year to Sumlin. Texas A&M needs to begin taking real, tangible steps toward SEC West and SEC title contention starting next season, and a win in the Liberty Bowl against a good West Virginia team would be a nice springboard into 2015.-- Kahn