3 matchups that will define Florida vs. Texas A&M
No. 4 Florida’s visit to College Station and No. 21 Texas A&M Saturday (Noon, ESPN) is one of two matchups between ranked teams in the SEC this weekend. When the COVID-shortened, SEC-only schedules were released in August, this game was one analysts and fans alike circled, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s Florida’s first road game in College Station since an epic game won by the Gators in 2012, which was the first Texas A&M start for some guy named Johnny Manziel. It’s also a battle between 3rd-year head coaches brought in to take proud programs back to the forefront of the national conversation.
For Florida, Saturday offers a chance to vanquish nearly a decade of bad memories against Jimbo Fisher, the A&M head coach who tormented Florida and its fan base for 8 years while the head coach at Florida State. For Texas A&M, it’s a chance to show that the Aggies, who are 1-8 against Top 10 teams in the Fisher era, can win big games and are a program ascending, despite increasingly noisy doubts outside the A&M football facility.
The Aggies’ slow start, which saw them squeak by lowly Vanderbilt before being outclassed at Alabama, has put a slight damper on the game from a national perspective. But it’s also added a touch of desperation. It’s time for Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies to stop making excuses and start winning football games against elite competition. A win Saturday would go a long way in silencing doubters.
Meanwhile, the Gators’ offense has been sensational through 2 games, but Florida has a long way to go defensively to compete for championships. Can Florida put together a complete team performance for the first time in 2020 Saturday? They may need to in order to leave College Station undefeated.
Here are 3 matchups that will define Florida and Texas A&M.
1. A struggling Kellen Mond vs. a struggling Florida secondary
Everyone keeps waiting for the Kellen Mond leap.
His numbers this season are just fine, by the way: 42-72 (58.3%), 507 yards (7.0 yards per attempt), 4 touchdowns and only 1 interception. Those numbers are basically right at his career averages (57.8%, 7 ypa).
But that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? Mond has frustrated his demanding head coach — not to mention every NFL scout and his fan base — by essentially being the same player for 3 seasons under Fisher. Now a 4th-year starter, he’s simply not made the leap you’d expect from any SEC starting quarterback, and he’s made nowhere close to the jump in production expected when the Aggies hired Fisher. By reputation a quarterback whisperer, Fisher had coaxed huge production leaps from returning quarterbacks, from JaMarcus Russell at LSU to Christian Ponder, EJ Manual and Jameis Winston at Florida State.
Mond hasn’t made that jump. Instead, he remains plagued by a tendency to make big mistakes, such as 2 fumbles against Vanderbilt that kept the game within reach for the Commodores or his pick-6 last weekend at Alabama.
The good news for Mond? He’s facing a Florida secondary that also has struggled. Ole Miss torched Florida for 400 yards in the air and South Carolina added 212 more, despite several drops. The Gators did manage to keep things in front of them against South Carolina, limiting Collin Hill and the Gamecocks to just 4.5 yards per attempt.
But Mond historically is very capable if you can’t force mistakes, and the Gators have not made many big plays this season. In fact, despite facing 2 teams playing catch-up all afternoon, Florida’s secondary has zero interceptions in 80 throws (Florida’s lone interception came from a defensive lineman). The Gators rank 56th nationally in defensive pass efficiency and 50th in yards allowed per pass attempt. Those numbers would be adequate if 130 teams were playing; they are woeful considering only 74 have played college football thus far this fall.
The thinking here is the reason the Vegas number is only 7 is that the really smart people in Sin City simply don’t trust the Florida defense to slow the Aggies.
It’s doubtful that without Jhamon Ausbon, who opted out, that A&M has the type of playmakers at wide receiver that Ole Miss had in Elijah Moore or South Carolina had in Shi Smith. And there are signs the Gators’ secondary will improve, including the sensational play of sophomore Jaydon Hill, who has played 52 coverage snaps at boundary corner and has yet to allow a yard in coverage.
But I still give a slight edge to Texas A&M in this matchup.
The Aggies’ offensive line is big and physical and excellent in protection, ranking 3rd nationally in sack percentage against, the best number in the SEC this season. They should protect the quarterback well. Mond is a prideful senior who has played well in big games in the past (see last year’s valiant efforts against Clemson and Alabama). If he does that Saturday, we’ll have a heck of a ballgame.
2. A&M’s run game vs. Florida’s interior defensive line
Florida has played the first 2 games without Kyree Campbell, the bruising nose tackle who has started 23 games in his career and was quietly one of the program’s most improved players in 2019. Dan Mullen isn’t talking about opt-outs and he isn’t talking about injuries, rendering Campbell’s status unknown, but what’s clear is that he’s sorely missed by Florida’s interior run defense. Florida has had trouble getting inside leverage and fitting interior run gaps, especially when it moves the versatile Zachary Carter away from the 3-technique inside and out to the edge.
South Carolina pounded Florida inside, gaining over 80% of its 117 yards rushing against the Gators between the tackles. Ole Miss was also productive inside, with over 100 of its 170 yards between the tackles.
The Texas A&M run game is quite good, at least statistically, and that’s impressive given the fact that an early game against Alabama traditionally skews a team’s rushing numbers in a negative direction. On the young season, the Aggies average 5.2 yards per rush, good for a tie for 2nd in the SEC with Florida. The Gators are 28th in yards allowed per rush attempt (3.5), a solid enough overall number. But that’s mostly because you can’t run outside on Florida (29% success rate this season, 2nd-best in the SEC).
The key to the game may very well be how Carter, Tedarrell Slaton, Marlon Dunlap and promising true freshman Gervon Dexter prevent a push up front, and whether a Florida linebacker other than Ventrell Miller plays a big game and helps fit run gaps.
Fisher will want to use the ground game to control the clock and play keep away from the explosive Gators offense. If the Aggies have balance, an upset may be brewing at Kyle Field.
3. Kyle Trask against a shorthanded A&M secondary
This will be a homecoming for Kyle Trask, who grew up in Manvel, Texas, and is named for Kyle Field, where he fell in love with college football attending games with his family on so many Saturdays down South.
He’ll face a Mike Elko defense that is big and athletic, but it isn’t deep, especially in the secondary.
The Aggies lost 3 defensive starters to opt-outs, including key secondary pieces in corner Elijah Blades and nickel Clifford Chattman. Blades, who was one of the fastest players in the SEC, has been a particularly painful loss, as he was A&M’s best vertical cover guy.
That has allowed teams to shy away from corner Myles Jones, a bona fide NFL talent, and attack the younger, inexperienced pieces in that Aggies secondary.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) October 3, 2020
Here, with Jones lined up on DeVonta Smith, Devin Morris (1 career start) gets lost on a Jaylen Waddle head fake and safety Demani Richardson (a sophomore) is late to help.
Here, on 3rd-and-8, Jones is on Waddle. Mac Jones recognizes this, and sees John Metchie III lined up 1-on-1 with freshman Jaylon Jones on the boundary. The result is an Alabama touchdown.
Hello, Mac Jones. Hello, John Metchie. Hello, end zone. pic.twitter.com/RN1aVjYHXY
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 3, 2020
Florida doesn’t have a Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith at receiver, but Trevon Grimes is plenty fast and will play on Sundays and Kadarius Toney has been an absolute nightmare for opponents in 2020.
And that’s before you get to “tight end” Kyle Pitts, the best player in the SEC who has a cool 6 — yes 6 — touchdowns through the season’s first 2 games.
Couple A&M’s secondary depth and youth issues with a pass rush that has been anemic — only JUCO product Michael Clemons has multiple pressures — and you get a recipe for another big Saturday for Florida’s marvelous Kyles.