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Orange Bowl marks end to trying 2020 season for North Carolina, Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher calls getting to end of season 'amazing feat;' Mack Brown 'not used to' bowl game opt outs
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown confers with assistant coach Ken Browning before game in September 2020
Posted at 10:59 PM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 22:59:28-05

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — North Carolina coach Mack Brown and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher will be on opposite sidelines during Saturday night's Orange Bowl, but no matter if their teams win or lose, both agree they will have accomplished something they weren't sure would happen when fall camp began -- that is, they will have concluded the season.

Such is the state of college football in 2020.

Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that Brown's Tar Heels and Fisher's Aggies will be playing their final game of the 2020 season in 2021. It will also be the first Orange Bowl played in the New Year since 2014.

"It's an amazing feat that we're where we're at right now in the college football world, and I think our country needs this," Fisher said Wednesday during a virtual Orange Bowl luncheon.

Indeed, playing football in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic hasn't been easy. There were postponements. There were cancellations. There were also opt outs. Lots of them.

The No. 5 Aggies (8-1) had six players opt out this fall, though none since the end of the regular season.

Texas A&M Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher in November 2020
Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher talks to an official before the start of a game against LSU, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in College Station, Texas.

Meanwhile, No. 14 North Carolina (8-3) had four opt outs headed into its first-ever Orange Bowl appearance: running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, receiver Dyami Brown and linebacker Chazz Surratt.

That's uncharted territory for Brown, who spent five years out of football after stepping down at Texas before returning for a second stint with the Tar Heels in 2019.

"I'm not used to that," Brown said of players skipping bowl games. That's new to me."

But it's become a growing trend in the playoff era.

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"I'm disappointed our guys aren't playing for them, for us, for the fans, for the Orange Bowl, because they're really good players and we wouldn't be in the game without them," Brown said. "But, at the same time, I'm not upset with them or mad because that's the trend that's happening right now in college football."

Brown said the opt outs provide "unexpected opportunities" for the rest of the team. That'll be important for the Tar Heels to find, considering Carter and Williams both broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark and Brown led the team with more than 1,000 yards receiving.

RELATED: Texas A&M, North Carolina to play in Orange Bowl

They're a big part of the reason why North Carolina leads the nation in total offense (6,123 yards) and ranks third in the country in total points scored (473).

Defensively, Surratt led North Carolina in individual total tackles (91), dealing another blow to the Orange Bowl-bound Tar Heels.

Still, North Carolina should benefit by having a playmaker at quarterback in Sam Howell. The true sophomore has thrown for 3,352 yards and 27 touchdowns and has found the end zone at least once in all 24 games of his college career -- the longest active streak in the country.

North Carolina Tar Heels QB Sam Howell throws in December 2020
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell passes against Western Carolina during the first half of a game, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Something's got to give against a Texas A&M defense that is 14th nationally in total offensive yards allowed per game (316.6).

Regardless, the fact that there will be a bowl game between two teams that faced adversity on and off the field this season will be an accomplishment in and of itself.

Fisher said he believes what his players had to overcome in 2020 will better prepare them for life after football.

"That's the way life is," he said. "Life's not fair. Life takes those twist and turns and we have to adjust to them."

Brown agreed, surmising that college football players have been safer around their coaches and teammates than they have away from the game.

"I think that young people need Jimbo and I at this time more than ever," he said.