CHARLOTTE — Two teams aiming to end the season the right way will clash in the Belk Bowl when Texas A&M and Wake Forest meet for the first time Friday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Yet the teams enter the game under vastly different circumstances.
Texas A&M (7-5) is in the midst of a coaching change, while Wake Forest (7-5) is aiming to continue a rise with its second bowl invitation in as many years.
“Now this year we did take another step,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said, referring to the seven-win regular season. “The next (step) is a little more challenging.”
Texas A&M is under the direction of interim coach Jeff Banks, who has been the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. He took over after the dismissal of Kevin Sumlin.
“We’re trying to prepare our team to beat a very good Wake Forest team,” Banks said. “We’ve got our hands full. We’ll get our guys excited to play.”
Jimbo Fisher is taking over as Texas A&M’s new coach after leaving his position at Florida State. Fisher, whose former team defeated Wake Forest during the regular season, is expected to attend the bowl game, but he hasn’t been part of the bowl preparations.
Banks said Fisher has been an asset while also allowing the current staff to finish the task.
“He has been very sensitive to us and very complimentary,” Banks said of the incoming coach.
It’s the second year in a row that Wake Forest‘s bowl opponent has an interim coach. Last year, the Demon Deacons defeated Temple 34-26 in the Military Bowl after Owls coach Matt Rhule left for Baylor.
For Wake Forest, this is a coveted opportunity to play about a 90-minute drive from campus.
“You play in (this bowl), you’re going to play a good team,” said Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford, who has thrown for 25 touchdowns with six interceptions this season. “They’re a brand name. … A chance to get eight wins is huge.”
So the Demon Deacons aren’t lacking for motivation, particularly with ending the regular season with a home loss to Duke a week after toppling NC State.
“The bowl game last year is something we’ll always remember and something we want to happen again,” Wake Forest center Ryan Anderson said of the euphoria of finishing with a postseason victory.
Wake Forest isn’t a postseason regular, holding a 7-4 mark all-time in bowls.
The Demon Deacons always seem to be trying to prove themselves, playing in the shadow of Atlantic Coast Conference powers Clemson, Florida State and Louisville in the same division.
“We played premier teams in our conference,” Clawson said. “Sometimes you play these bowl games, you have to convince your team they’re good. Playing Texas A&M out of the SEC West, that’s not an issue.”
Wake Forest could have running back Cade Carney back after he missed most of November with various ailments.
Texas A&M will be without suspended defensive end Zaycoven Henderson, who was arrested amid several charges regarding a dispute at a College Station, Texas, apartment complex.
The Aggies will have wide receiver Christian Kirk, a junior who likely will be playing in his final college game. The potential first-rounder didn’t have huge numbers this season, as the Aggies weren’t as consistent at quarterback, but he did catch 46 passes for 575 yards and six touchdowns.
With less than a week to go before the game, Kirk intended to play in the bowl, despite a growing trend of elite players skipping the postseason in order to prepare for the draft and avoid potential injury.
“I haven’t won a bowl game since I’ve been at A&M,” he said in the Houston Chronicle. “That’s something I definitely want to do. It sucks losing bowl games — it’s a terrible feeling.”
During practices, Banks said the Aggies have been focused and the coaching staff is committed to seeing this through to the end.
“We’re the same ones who have been coaching for 12 games,” Banks said. “As far as my future is concerned, I’ll figure that out when it’s time to figure that out, which is after this bowl.”
Texas A&M lost its regular-season finale 45-21 at LSU for its third setback in its last five games.
“I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to finish this the right way,” Banks said.