- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2013 season didn't turn out the way Texas A&M had hoped.
There were dreams and goals of playing for an SEC championship and perhaps a BCS bowl. But a young, struggling defense and an offense that sputtered at times down the stretch, not to mention a beaten-up quarterback, meant the Aggies would have to settle for less than an SEC championship or BCS bowl berth.
Next comes a New Year's Eve date with No. 24 Duke (10-3) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. If you don't think Texas A&M has a lot to play for, head coach Kevin Sumlin thinks differently.
"If we can win this game, it'll be the first time in the history of this program we've won three bowl games in a row [in three consecutive seasons]," Sumlin said. "That's significant. There's been a lot of football played and a lot of guys come through this room who can't say they've done that."
The No. 21 Aggies (8-4) ended the season with a whimper, losing consecutive road games against ranked foes LSU and Missouri.
After the season concluded, Sumlin gave the players some time off, and when the Aggies returned for bowl practice, he saw an energized group.
"The way this season has gone, we gave them a couple weeks off. ... I like our energy level right now," Sumlin said. "Guys have come back healthy, there's a little bit more bounce in their step and I think we were a little worn down there at the end, mentally and physically."
Duke is also coming off a loss, but its season trajectory and perception is much different. This has been a historic season for Blue Devils football. They've gone "from irrelevant to relevant a year ago to right now, pretty damn relevant," as athletic director Kevin White said during Duke's bowl news conference earlier this month.
A long downtrodden program is quickly on the rise under Maxwell Football Club National Coach of the Year David Cutcliffe, and the Blue Devils see this game as a chance to do something special.
"As soon as our players heard about this opportunity, they're blowing up my phone with texts and tweets are going out and social media is rocking," Cutcliffe said. "It let me know how excited we are to come to Atlanta and represent Duke in this game. ... It's important for us to play well."
The Blue Devils lost to No. 1 Florida State in the ACC championship game but have done enough this season to be a top-25 team in the BCS standings, making this game one of nine bowl games matching up two top-25 BCS teams.
Many have speculated it could be the last game of the Johnny Manziel era for the Aggies, as many predict the quarterback declare for early entry into the 2014 NFL draft. Meanwhile, Sumlin is finishing his second season with the Aggies and just signed a new, six-year contract that looks to keep him around for a while.
"In the last two years, there's been something accomplished," Sumlin said. "Last year's team was one of four [in Texas A&M history] to win 11 [games]. This year we can [win a third consecutive bowl game]. ... That becomes something that can be very, very special to our seniors going out and that can be something that can be really propel us in the offseason."
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf