By staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
Who: Texas A&M (4-2, 2-1 SEC) vs. Florida (3-2, 3-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: UF is favored by 3
Swamp Green Saturday
When the Gators take the field tonight, they’ll actually look the part, at least from an attire standpoint. Florida will stray from the traditional orange and blue for the first time in program history by wearing “Swamp green” alternate uniforms that resemble the skin of an alligator. Looking to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Steve Spurrier nicknaming Ben Hill Griffin Stadium “The Swamp”, Nike and UF collaborated on the uniforms, which will be worn just once, over the past 18 months. Although initial reviews from fans was mixed, coach Jim McElwain feels the uniforms appeal to the future of the program. “The response in recruiting, ultimately the demographic we’re looking at, man, the excitement has been unbelievable,” McElwain said.
Gators must find playmakers
There’s no other way to say it: Florida lacks proven playmakers entering tonight’s matchup with Texas A&M. In addition to the absence of both Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett, who remain suspended for their role in the credit card fraud scandal that rocked the program, the Gators will likely be without wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney. Without Toney, the Gators will look primarily at Dre Massey to run the Wildcat formation and more touches for tailback Malik Davis (pictured above). And without the team’s primary deep threat in Cleveland, the Gators will need another pass catcher to step up and help quarterback Feleipe Franks stretch the field against a Aggies pass defense that has allowed 263.5 passing yards per game this season.
Tempo could help Franks
The plot unfolded like it usually did: Florida’s defense appeared stuck on the field for long stretches in last Saturday’s 17-16 loss to LSU and the offense couldn’t sustain drives. The Gators managed just 54 offensive plays against the Tigers, and Feleipe Franks and Co. converted just two of their nine third-down conversion attempts. That said, McElwain believes the key to elevating Franks’ play in clutch situations is to increase the tempo, which was a point of emphasis throughout practice this week. “I think some of the tempo pieces we worked this week are going to hopefully help him. Kind of with the comfort of getting things in and out,” McElwain said of Franks. “He’s been good. Like I said, he’s a confident guy. And doesn’t waver.”
UF in search of turnovers
After CJ Henderson announced his presence with pick-sixes in consecutive games, it seemed a foregone conclusion the Gators would rely on turnovers to fuel the offense. But since the 26-20 victory over Tennessee, Florida has yet to record a turnover in the three ensuing contests. Florida is 10-1 under McElwain when the Gators win the turnover battle, but forcing said turnovers appears to be the hardest part for a UF unit that ranks No. 1 in the SEC in red-zone defense. Sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr., a focal point of UF’s young secondary, believes it comes down to skill rather than simply being in the right place at the right time. “It ain’t no luck,” Gardner said. “You have to have ball skills.”
No Tide hangover for A&M
Under normal circumstances, the Aggies would be limping into The Swamp tonight with their heads bowed and their confidence shaken. Because that’s what usually happens to teams that play Alabama the Saturday before. They enter the next game beaten and broken. But that’s not the case with A&M, which played the Tide last Saturday night in College Station. The Aggies didn’t get beat up, they punched back — and landed quite a flew blows to Nick Saban’s mighty squad. A&M competed equally with Alabama for long stretches of the game before falling 27-19. Not bad for a team that was a four-touchdown underdog. A&M held Alabama to just 335 yards of total offense, its lowest total of the season. So, the Aggies aren’t limping into The Swamp. They’re striding in with renewed confidence.
Freshman QB can produce
While the Gators continue to struggle with a redshirt freshman starting at quarterback, the Aggies are starting to roll with their true freshman quarterback, Kellen Mond, who played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton last fall. Tentative and unproductive in A&M’s first couple of games, Mond has since settled down and started to perform at a much higher level. A calm and confident player, especially for a true freshman, he is a true dual-threat quarterback who is capable of taking it the distance if he gets outside the pocket. UF’s No. 1 defensive goal will be to keep Mond in the pocket, but as we saw last week in the loss to LSU, the Gators have a tendency to give up the edge, sometimes quite easily. By the way, Mond’s passing has dramatically improved since the start of the season.
Zaire not going away
After going on Twitter last Saturday night and expressing his apparent displeasure about not getting a chance to play in the LSU game, quarterback Malik Zaire, the Notre Dame graduate transfer, has not started to fade away behind redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. No, he’s remained engaged and has been competing harder than ever in practice, according to some of the players and UF coach Jim McElwain, who said earlier in the week that the coaches have to show patience with Franks as he develops. But if the offense staggers again early in the game tonight — which very well could happen against a playmaking and improving A&M defense — don’t be surprised if Mac decides to shake things up by giving Zaire another chance. He remains a viable option.
Today’s game questions
- The Gators put an emphasis on starting fast throughout the week in practice. Will they get off to one tonight or not?
- UF is also planning to go with a quicker tempo on offense tonight. How does that work out?
- Will the Florida defense go a fourth straight game without coming up with a turnover?
- Will the Gators produce any explosive plays in the passing game?
- Can the Florida defense contain dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers or click back later tonight.
Texas A&M 28, Florida 6
Florida pass defense/special teams vs. Texas A&M receiver/returner Christian Kirk:
Kirk will be the best player on the field tonight, and it won’t even be close. He can break open a game catching the football, running it and returning it, so the Gators are going to have their hands full on several fronts when it comes to slowing down No. 3. Kirk will be a huge test for the defense. He’s A&M’s leading receiver and he’s also a major threat on jet sweeps, which should send chills down the back of anyone who saw last week’s game against LSU. Here’s the really scary thing about Kirk coming into tonight’s game: he’s only returned one punt for minus-1 yard this season, which means teams are afraid to even kick to him. UF punter Johnny Townsend won’t be. If Townsend, the Gators’ best offensive weapon with his ability to flip field position, out-kicks his coverage like he’s done several times this season, boom, Kirk is going to have a chance to take it to the house. Just saying.