It's been a disappointing year for Texas A&M, but its first bowl win in a decade would be a nice lift heading into a new conference with a new coach.
For Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, this will be his fourth attempt at leading the program to its first bowl win since 1949.
Playing for the final time as a member of the Big 12 before joining the SEC, the Aggies will face the Wildcats in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday in Houston.
After tying for first in the Big 12 South and finishing 9-4 last season, Texas A&M was expected to challenge for the conference title in 2011 and was ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll. However, the Aggies' 1-5 record in games decided by seven points or fewer resulted in a 6-6 regular season and the firing of coach Mike Sherman on Dec. 1.
With Sherman having gone .500 in four seasons as coach, the Texas A&M program moves into the Kevin Sumlin era after he was hired Dec. 10. Sumlin, an Aggies assistant from 2001-02 under R.C. Slocum, was one of the country's hottest coaching candidates after leading Houston to a school-record 12 wins this season and one shy of a BCS bowl bid.
Sumlin will not coach this game as the Aggies go for their first postseason victory since defeating TCU in the 2001 Galleryfurniture.com Bowl.
"I would have been a distraction from what they are trying to do to win a bowl game," he said during his introductory news conference. "... I'm not going to come in here and just try to coach this team in the next two weeks to beat Northwestern. After that, we'll move on."
Interim coach Tim DeRuyter, the Aggies' defensive coordinator the last two seasons, also will be moving on following this game after being named Fresno State's coach Dec. 14.
While the Aggies closed the regular season by losing four of five, Northwestern (6-6) heads to Reliant Stadium having gone 4-1 following a five-game skid.
This is the fourth straight year the Wildcats have been to a bowl game, but they're 0-8 since winning the 1949 Rose Bowl.
All three losses under Fitzgerald, who took over in 2006, have been heartbreakers. The Wildcats lost in overtime in the first two, then fell 45-38 to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl on New Year's Day.
Fitzgerald would like nothing more than for senior quarterback Dan Persa to help end the drought as he makes his bowl debut in his final collegiate start.
Persa, the nation's leader in completion percentage (74.2), became the starter last year but had to miss the bowl game due to an Achilles' injury that also sidelined him the first three games this season.
"This will be a great way to put an exclamation point to his career," Fitzgerald told the school's official website. "Get this monkey off our back, get the win and really springboard the next year and put a great bow to the careers of a senior class that is really special."
Persa threw for 2,163 yards in nine games with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions, ranking 10th in the nation in passer rating at 160.3.
Persa has a number of big-play threats, the best of which is Jeremy Ebert. He was the Big Ten's fourth-leading receiver with 71 catches for 1,025 yards and ranked third in the conference with 11 TDs. Ebert needs 110 yards to move into second all-time at Northwestern with 2,475 and three catches to take over third place with 172.
Fellow senior Drake Dunsmore is the school's all-time leading receiver among tight ends after finishing this year with 43 catches for 509 yards, winning the Big Ten's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award. One of his worst games came in last season's bowl - one catch for three yards - but he set career highs with nine receptions and 120 yards in a 2010 Outback Bowl loss to Auburn.
Demetrius Fields has caught one TD pass in three straight contests and also could cause problems for the Aggies' 113th-ranked pass defense (280.5 yards per game).
Texas A&M, though, is 13th against the run, allowing 106.0 yards per game.
Northwestern was 4-0 when it had more than 170 yards rushing, compared to 2-6 when it didn't.
The Aggies' ground game was hurt by the loss of Christine Michael, who ran for 899 yards and eight TDs before tearing an ACL last month, and would be further weakened if Cyrus Gray can't play. The senior had his second straight 1,000-yard, 12-touchdown season, but his status is uncertain due to a shoulder injury suffered in a 61-7 win over Kansas on Nov. 19.
Still, Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who served in the same role for the Aggies from 1997-02, faces a tough test from the Texas A&M passing game. Senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a big reason the Aggies rank seventh in the nation in total offense (497.0 yards per game) and are 11th with 39.6 points per game.
Tannehill, a converted wideout, threw for 3,415 yards with 28 TDs and 14 INTs. His favorite target was Ryan Swope, who had 11 TDs and set program records with 81 receptions and 1,102 yards.
"I'm really impressed by him," Fitzgerald said of Tannehill. "I know he's a young man who early in his career played wide receiver and to watch that growth as a quarterback, it's very similar to some of the young men that we've seen that has that dual-threat capability in our conference."
This will be the first meeting between Texas A&M and Northwestern.
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