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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Gators travel to face struggling Aggies

Florida takes on Texas A&M Saturday in a cross-divisional SEC clash

<p>Florida redshirt sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill between first-half plays against Georgia Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. </p>

Florida redshirt sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill between first-half plays against Georgia Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

Florida football entered the season with modest expectations after a disappointing 6-7 2021 season led to the dismissal of former head coach Dan Mullen.

Despite the attrition of four difficult conference losses, first-year head coach Billy Napier said he’s seen a lot of growth from his team, especially in its mentality.

“When backed in a corner, they've always kind of stood up and got up off the ground and kept competing and playing with effort, trying to do their best for their teammates,” Napier said.

With four games remaining, the Gators still have plenty to play for.

The Florida Gators (4-4, 1-4 SEC) travel to College Station, Texas, to face the Texas A&M Aggies (3-5, 1-4 SEC) in a pivotal matchup for both teams’ seasons. 

UF is looking to rebound after a pair of frustrating losses to ranked rival opponents. The Gators lost at home in an offensive shootout to Louisiana State, now the No. 10 team in the first College Football Playoff rankings, and their comeback effort fell short last week against No. 1 Georgia, who still sits atop the Associated Press top 25.

Florida last visited Kyle Field during the pandemic season in 2020. Even with a limited capacity, the Aggies’ “12th Man” still made an impact in the game.

“They did have probably the most packed stadium out of everywhere we went that year,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill said. “I just know like, since it's no restrictions, it will be pretty rowdy this coming weekend.”

Texas A&M entered the season with tremendous hype, especially after signing the highest-rated recruiting class in history according to 247Sports. The Aggies started the season ranked No. 6 in the country and were expected to compete for a College Football Playoff spot and the Southeastern Conference title. 

Those dreams were quickly dashed, however, when A&M lost at home to Appalachian State. Since that disastrous upset, the Aggies have struggled, especially in conference play, with losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State.

Against then-No. 1 Alabama, Texas A&M nearly pulled a season-saving upset. Down four with seconds left to play, the Aggie offense set up at the Crimson Tide 2-yard line. Quarterback Haynes King looked for star freshman Evan Stewart in the front corner of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete and Texas A&M went home empty handed.

Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher’s offense has been a point of contention for pundits and fans. Texas A&M ranks in the bottom 25 nationally for points per game. Quarterbacks King and Max Johnson have both struggled to find any rhythm in Fisher’s system, and an injured offensive line has battled inconsistency all season.

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The Aggies made a switch under center last week, pegging true freshman Connor Weigman as their new starting signal caller. A former five-star recruit, Weigman thrived in his first college start, giving Texas A&M’s offense a reset for the final stretch of the season.

Against Ole Miss, Weigman threw for 338 yards and four touchdowns while committing zero turnovers.

Texas A&M’s offense is able to support its freshman quarterback with a bevy of talented playmakers. Running back Devon Achane is an explosive rusher and receiver who leads the team with 960 yards from scrimmage. The dynamic junior is also a threat as a kick returner. 

True freshman wide receiver Evan Stewart, another highly touted former five-star recruit, has become a force for Texas A&M’s offense in recent weeks. Redshirt sophomore receiver Moose Muhammad III also poses a threat for the Aggies in the passing game.

“Jimbo’s got a really good team at A&M, very talented group — personnel, rosters, deep, certainly height-length, verified speed,” Napier said. “Not many chinks in the armor when you look at the personnel match-wise.”

The Aggies have one of the better defenses in the SEC, tied for third in the league for points allowed per game and they’re No. 7 nationally for passing yards allowed per game. Despite those strengths and a cavalcade of elite prospects across the defensive front, Texas A&M’s struggled at times, especially against the run.

The Aggies are second-to-last — only ahead of Florida — in the SEC for rushing yards allowed per game. Against Ole Miss, that weakness cost them the game. The Rebels ran the ball 63 times for 390 yards, preventing Texas A&M from springing an upset. 

Florida’s offense will look to attack the struggling Aggie run defense with a two-headed monster at running back running behind a talented offensive line. Freshman Trevor Etienne was the Gators’ most productive offensive playmaker against Georgia and could be in line for another big performance against a talented SEC foe. 

Kickoff Saturday is scheduled for noon. The game will broadcast on ESPN.

Contact Topher Adams at tadams@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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