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Florida vs. Texas A&M, Preview: Can the Gators rule The Swamp at night?

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Texas A&M can score. To keep up, Florida may have to do the same.

LSU v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A month ago, the Florida Gators had been beaten thoroughly by Michigan, and the Texas A&M Aggies had blown a lead in historic fashion against UCLA.

Since then, things have gone up and then down for both teams, which saw winning streaks end last season at the hands of LSU and Alabama, respectively.

Both teams come into Saturday night’s showdown in The Swamp needing wins to stay alive for a theoretical SEC championship. Who will get one?

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Texas A&M rush defense

Florida’s running game is perhaps the biggest change for the Gators since that first game against Michigan. The Gators mustered a puny 0.4 yards per carry against the Wolverines; in four games since then against SEC competition, Florida’s at 5.0 yards per carry, and hasn’t been under 4.3.

You know the names: Malik Davis is Florida’s No. 1 back even if he doesn’t start, Lamical Perine is the No. 2 even if he does start, and Mark Thompson — who quietly got zero carries against LSU — is the change-of-pace big back and a threat on screens.

With Kadarius Toney out thanks to injury, though, Florida will be relegated mostly to straight-up running, with the near-zero contributions of Dre Massey this season making it unlikely that the Gators employ Toney’s package of direct-snap plays with the services of his backup. And Toney’s 118 yards on the ground this fall have come on just 12 carries, often the sort of scything runs off tackle that get a defense off balance. It would be unfair to expect quite as great a game from the Gators’ runners without Toney, but they will be asked to do more without him.

Unfortunately, Texas A&M’s defense is good, though not great, against the run. The Aggies boast top-31 marks in four of the five rate stats Bill Connelly tracks at Football Study Hall, with the exception being a stat describing explosiveness — which is thanks in part to A&M giving up 10 20-yard runs this year.

Of course, Florida’s done that, too.

Edge: Even

Florida passing game vs. Texas A&M pass defense

Passing the ball might work against an A&M defense that has similar bend-but-don’t-break tendencies.

The Aggies have given up 66 completions of 10 or more yards, the 11th most in the nation this year, and 26 of those passes covered 20 or more yards. Senior Armani Watts is a true No. 1 corner for the Aggies, but it ain’t an accident that the only team that hasn’t thrown for 200 yards on A&M is Alabama, which merely ran over A&M instead.

But what can Florida do with that, really? Feleipe Franks appears to be in arrested development, and he’s likely to be without his top three potential targets — the ailing Tyrie Cleveland, Toney, and the suspended Antonio Callaway — in his first chance to light up the night in The Swamp. Florida has done a fairly good job in protection since being run through against Michigan, with personnel switches and some moving of the pocket helping alleviate the pressure, but the options Franks will have notably seem not to include threats to stretch the field — save Massey, whose rumored competence in this area has yet to materialize on a Saturday.

Franks could certainly figure out how to read defenses and excel in intermediate passing for this game, and he’s rather likely to have chances to do so against A&M, which sacrifices some of those big plays for pressure, like every John Chavis-coordinated defense in history.

Does it seem likely, though?

Slight edge: Texas A&M

When A&M has the ball

Texas A&M running game vs. Florida rush defense

The Aggies failed to run the ball effectively — or almost at all, really — in the second-half collapse against UCLA. Since then, the Aggies have rededicated themselves to the ground game, and reaped the rewards.

Five Aggies are over 100 rushing yards on the season, four are over 200, and the trio of running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford and quarterback Kellen Mond had combined for 200 yards on the ground in each of Texas A&M’s two games immediately prior to running into Alabama’s brick wall of a run defense.

Subtract that game, and you get an A&M attack that’s substantially over five yards per carry on the year — and one that has a mobile quarterback capable of giving Florida fits.

Florida’s defense has more or less the same issues against the run that A&M’s does — good bones, but a frustrating tendency to give up big plays — but isn’t quite as good at everything but the allowing explosive runs, and sometimes looks completely lost when presented with something new, like LSU’s sweeps or Michigan’s counters to the weak side. That’s the peril of having almost entirely young linebackers and inconsistent edge-setting, and those are the sorts of things that could allow Mond, especially, to run wild in The Swamp.

Edge: Texas A&M

A&M passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Mond is a better runner than passer at the moment, and he’s had an up-and-down season — he was 3-for-17 against UCLA, but was 19-for-29 against Alabama — in regards to both efficiency and explosiveness. Three times, he’s completed better than 60 percent of his passes; three times, he’s averaged better than eight yards an attempt.

But those aren’t all the same game — and that means he’s been under those marks three times each, too, despite having the dynamic Christian Kirk on hand to throw to. And while A&M’s lack of another big-time receiver to pair with Kirk has hampered its passing game, its efforts to turn freshman Jhamon Ausbon into that target have netted just under six yards per target.

Florida’s defense is more green in its secondary than anywhere else, but that secondary has been growing up quickly, and did a fine job against LSU a week ago; had Duke Dawson completed any of the interceptions he had a chance to nab, that game might well have ended differently. Those defenders will have a heck of a challenge before them with Mond running around, though, and if Florida’s pass rush only forces Mond from the pocket rather than taking him down, young defenders might well bust more often.

Slight edge: Texas A&M

Special teams

Texas A&M is No. 19 in Special Teams S&P+. Florida is No. 20 — and did, you’ll recall, just lose a game based on a missed extra point.

Edge: Even

Other factors

Florida is wearing the worst uniforms Florida has ever worn, and hosting A&M for the first time in decades — and in an SEC matchup for the first time ever. This is also Florida’s first night game in nearly a year, and its first night game against an SEC foe since a shellacking of Ole Miss two seasons ago. While I’m not sure Florida fans will actually pack this game out after last week’s dispiriting loss, those in attendance should be plenty loud — unless, or until, things go sideways.

A&M, meanwhile, just played as good a game against Alabama as it has since the Johnny Manziel years — and has three SEC wins in games after playing the bruising Crimson Tide over the last three years, just one of those over a team that would win more than four games. But the Aggies are also averaging over 34 points per game — and Florida has scored 30 just three times in the last 365 days.

Slight edge: Florida