Getting to know your bowl opponent: Duke vs. Texas A&M

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Chick-fil-A Bowl, New Year’s Eve, 8, ESPN

Duke (10-3, 6-2) — Everyone loves an underdog story and Duke’s rags-to-riches turnaround takes the cake in college football this season. Gus Malzahn’s campaign at Auburn following Gene Chizik’s demise is nationally noteworthy, but David Cutcliffe’s emergence in Durham for the school-record 10-win Blue Devils is astounding. They’ve earned back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in program history after winning eight consecutive wins to end the regular season, not to mention their first-ever ACC division title.

Related: Full bowl schedule

THE SKINNY: Two polar opposite football programs from a historical perspective meet in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve, one who couldn’t be happier in a meaningful bowl against another coming to grips with falling short of preseason Top 5 expectations. Perceived dominance was problematic for the Aggies who never got it together on defense during Kevin Sumlin’s second season. Duke, picked to finish at the bottom of the Coastal, made plays when it had to in a variety of unexpected ways, winning four games by a touchdown or less in the final frame. A&M has three Sports Illustrated All-America selections — Jake Matthews, Mike Evans and Johnny Manziel — while the Blue Devils’ return threat, wideout Jamison Crowder, earned a second-team nod.

Related: Texas A&M’s 2013 season recap

KEY PLAYER: Let’s dissect a key unit instead — Duke’s secondary. The Blue Devils will be tested early and often by the Manziel-Evans duo in a not so favorable matchup. In the ACC Championship Game against a similar prolific threat of Jameis Winston-Kelvin Benjamin, Duke picked off two passes but ran out of gas in the second half. Winston tallied 399 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in his final spotlight before winning the Heisman. Keep an eye on Duke freshman corner DeVon Edwards. His breakout game came against N.C. State this season when he returned a kick and two interception returns for touchdowns.

WHAT TO WATCH: Johnny Football, who else? What is likely the final college game for the SEC’s most electrifying player these last two seasons comes in prime time on New Year’s Eve, fitting for a quarterback who has welcomed the limelight during his career in College Station. Duke gets a rare opportunity at showcasing its own brand under Cutcliffe and prove the Blue Devils are more than a Coach K-driven force in March. Battling a Heisman finalist for a second consecutive game will prove challenging for a unit that’s been relatively untested this season against elite quarterbacks not named Winston.

FINAL SAY: What happened to Texas A&M? With Manziel dinged up the final two games, the Aggies fell from just outside the Top 10 to nearly out of the rankings altogether following losses at LSU and Mizzou. The Aggies are 0-4 against ranked teams this season and Duke’s No. 24. A&M will be able to out-athlete the Blue Devils at nearly every skill position but the question of being motivated to play — commonplace this time of year — comes into effect. Don’t be surprised if Manziel goes out with a splash inside the Georgia Dome ala Tim Tebow’s Sugar Bowl finale vs. Cincinnati during the 2009 campaign.

Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

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