Amazing what a difference a few weeks can make. After the unforgivable collapse against UCLA and a pair of too-close victories over lower-tier opponents, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin seemed to be the coach with the hottest seat in the SEC. Then came a momentum-shifting overtime victory over Arkansas, a rally past South Carolina, and the toughest game anyone’s given Alabama since the national championship game last season.
No question, the Aggies remain very much a work in progress, and the Kyle Field faithful could turn on Sumlin again in a heartbeat. But both freshman quarterback Kellen Mond and that Texas A&M defense have taken big steps forward the last two weeks, and the Aggies are positioning themselves for a very strong finishing run — if they can get past this weekend.
Florida remains the conundrum it’s been all season, beset with suspensions and injuries and a toothless offense, yet in the thick of the SEC East race thanks in large part to galling defensive mistakes made by two of its opponents. The Swamp promises to be its usual, rowdy self for a night game against a name opponent making its first trip to Gainesville since 1962. But the Gators continue to walk a delicate tightrope, evident again last weekend in a low-scoring loss decided by a missed extra point.
Vegas sports books have installed Florida as a 3-point home favorite, although it’s fairly obvious which of these teams has looked better the last few weeks. Plus, the Gators will be wearing reptile-themed “swamp green” uniforms, which ought to incur a 15-yard penalty just for insulting our fashion sense. Regardless, it’s easy to like the Aggies here, even though they’ll be playing in Gainesville for the first time in 55 years.
1. Texas A&M can control the game on the ground
While Mond’s development gets all the attention, the Aggies are averaging 224 rushing yards a game behind backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. Getting away from the ground game was the chief reason behind the opening-week collapse in the Rose Bowl, and the Aggies seemed to have learned from that. They rolled up 285 rushing yards on Arkansas and 237 on South Carolina, and are built to win in the Swamp much like LSU did last week — on the ground, one rush and one hard-fought yard at a time.
2. Kellen Mond has become effective at picking his spots
The freshman quarterback has gotten better and better at knowing when and how to take the big shots that add punch to the Aggies offense. With the run game bottled up against Alabama, Mond set up Texas A&M’s first touchdown with a 32-yard hookup, and its second with a 39-yard strike. He was even better against a South Carolina defense that guards against the big play, but Mond still burned the Gamecocks for a 20-yard strike on the tying touchdown drive, and a 21-yarder on the go-ahead possession. He’s become a nice complement to the run game, giving the Aggies balance Florida can’t match.
3. Florida’s defense has issues of its own
The Gators rank 11th and 12th in the conference, respectively, in scoring offense and total offense, but their problems aren’t limited to that side of the ball. Florida is giving up 24.2 points per game and is on pace to allow its highest opponent scoring average since 1971, according to 247Sports. That puts a lot of pressure on an inconsistent offense to outscore people, something the Gators don’t want to have to do against a Texas A&M team averaging 34.3 points per game. All those Will Muschamp recruits on defense couldn’t save Florida forever.
4. Pressure seems to have eased in College Station
Maybe it’s because his team has played better. Maybe it’s because the Aggies weathered a key stretch with two needed SEC victories, and a very competitive showing against the best team in America. Maybe it’s because others — hello, Butch Jones, Bret Beilema and Ed Orgeron — have passed him on the league’s Hot Seat List. Whatever the reason, from the outside, at least, it feels like Sumlin has bought himself some time. Florida, meanwhile, continues to wait on the return of the good old days. This will be another game where all the pressure is on the home sideline.
Prediction: Texas A&M 34, Florida 27
Texas A&M presents a healthier and more balanced offense than the one LSU brought into the Swamp last week, and a defense that leads the SEC in sacks. Expect the Aggies to bring pressure on Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, force turnovers, take advantage of short fields. A Gators loss would mark the first time they’ve dropped back-to-back home games under coach Jim McElwain.
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