Florida Football: One Way or Another, Texas A&M Game Will Define Gators' Season

Neil ShulmanCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2012

Now comes Will Muschamp's first test
Now comes Will Muschamp's first testSam Greenwood/Getty Images

If college football is a religion, then its weekly service is College GameDay. The site of the church/temple varies by week, but one thing is for sure: the site will be rocking.

For the first week of the season, ESPN chose the Alabama-Michigan game as its host site. Not a bad choice, considering the buildup of two top 10 teams playing to open the season.

For the second week of the season, ESPN chose College Station, Texas, where the Aggies of Texas A&M happen to be opening their season as well—against the Gators of Florida.

Of course, the fact that the Aggies will be playing their first SEC game has a lot to do with ESPN's decision, but something tells me that ESPN wouldn't do it if Texas A&M opened up against, say, Kentucky, Mississippi or even Tennessee.

As I said earlier, I believe ESPN thinks the Gators are primed for a special season. They have put Florida on three straight late afternoon national broadcasts on their main network, including this one. They expect the Gators to be this year's breakout team, like Auburn of two years ago or Alabama of four years ago.

However, lots of things have to happen first. 

I've always said not to judge Will Muschamp in any way, good or bad, for anything that happened in his first season. Well, now it's his second season, and his first game didn't go very well. But it's over and the Gators got the win, so now we turn our attention to Texas A&M.

Every Gator fan was looking forward to October to sort of avenge last year's 0-4 October. But here's a news flash: if the Gators don't run the table in September, they're going to have no chance at the type of season they want to have. A loss to Texas A&M cripples any shot of winning the SEC East. Unless, of course, you count on Florida running the table the rest of way. With LSU, Georgia and South Carolina still on the schedule, that's not going to happen.

I'm not sure if Gator fans realize how good Texas A&M really is. They went 6-6 last year, that's true, but most of those losses were extremely close. They had a huge lead on SEC heavyweight Arkansas and blew it at the end. They led Oklahoma State 20-3 and couldn't close it out. They lost in four overtimes to Kansas State. They lost on a last-second field goal to Texas. They played Oklahoma very tough before falling apart in the third quarter. They lost in Missouri in overtime.

This wasn't a so-so team on a bad luck roll. This was a young, talented team that just didn't know how to play with a lead.

Now it's a year later, and each team has a distinct advantage over the other.

Texas A&M hasn't played a game yet, so they could be extremely rusty in their first game. The general rule of thumb is that the biggest improvement comes from Week 1 to Week 2. Since this is Texas A&M's Week 1 and Florida's Week 2, the Gators should be more fine tuned and crisp than the Aggies.

On the other hand, Texas A&M has a new coach, and since they haven't played a game yet, Will Muschamp has no tape of the Aggies to study. Since Florida has played a game already, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at least has an idea of what Brent Pease is going to do, even if he didn't completely show his hand against Bowling Green.

Jeff Driskel will get his first official start as Florida's QB, and he will do so against a Texas A&M defense that had a tendency to get burned last season. The Gators will look to feature Mike Gillislee again, and with an inconsistent offensive line (but that's better than last year, when they were consistently horrible), it could get very interesting. If the Gators open up the passing game some, Texas A&M could be in some trouble.

The key for Florida is their defense, which they prided themselves on so much last season. It was very inconsistent against Bowling Green. The Gators forced six three and outs, but also allowed two long, punishing touchdown drives. The Aggies' offense is much better than Bowling Green's, so the Gators need to be careful with their coverage. The Aggies may not be a real SEC team yet, but they are definitely a Big 12 team. That means their offense is explosive enough to cause SEC teams trouble.

Johnny Manziel will be making his first collegiate start at QB for A&M. He has quite a few playmakers to choose from, but the most dangerous one is Ryan Swope, the senior receiver. For a little change of pace, Christine Michael will get lots of carries to test the Gators' front seven, and also to take the pressure off of Manziel.

How the Gators react against this balanced attack will go a long way in determining their success.

But back to this game's importance. A single loss to the Aggies won't hurt the Gators at all. It's what a tough loss to LSU and another to South Carolina would do when added on to the Gators' loss column. The difference between 5-3 in SEC play and 6-2 could mean the difference between the Outback Bowl and a BCS Championship. Who knows, LSU did it in 2007 with two losses.

If Florida goes 6-2 (assuming losses to South Carolina and LSU) and beats Georgia, then they just have to hope for Georgia to lose once more and South Carolina to lose three times. This is entirely possible, since they play each other before Florida plays them, Georgia visits a steaming mad Auburn team and South Carolina has to deal with LSU and Arkansas from the SEC West. If South Carolina beats Georgia and all three teams won every other game not mentioned here, it would be a three-way tie. Then it comes down to a crazy tiebreaker, and hey, it could go Florida's way. 

Of course, there are other ways the Gators could win the East, too. The Gators could simply run the table, or lose one game to either Texas A&M or LSU and be guaranteed the East crown. But those aren't likely. Between LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, the likely projection would be 1-2, and if the Gators win every other game, they're just fine and dandy.

Then, as history shows us, a team from the SEC can win its division, win the SEC Championship Game and then jump over one loss or undefeated teams into the BCS Championship and win. Two teams had better records than LSU at the end of the 2007 season (not counting Ohio State, the team LSU beat for the BCS Championship). Nine other teams also had two losses. LSU, the winner of the SEC, got the nod over all of them, and this was when the SEC's reign of BCS dominance was only a year old.

This year, the SEC is looking for its seventh. You think the SEC has even more power now than it did in 2007? Assuming Florida beats FSU (and that is admittedly a big if), then they are a lock for the BCS Championship with two losses and having just beaten what will likely be a top five team for the SEC Championship as long as there aren't two undefeated conference champions (and really, how often does that ever happen?)

But all of this comes to a screeching halt if Florida doesn't take care of business against Texas A&M. A loss, and all of this is irrelevant. The Gators will then be on the outside looking in. With that brutal October looming, the Gators will absolutely have to beat each the other two East contenders because they need a little room for error against LSU and it's a nondivisional game. This is far less likely.

With College GameDay on the scene, Will Muschamp's job security on the line and a little payback (for the little billboard stunt) on the Gators' minds, we will soon find out what this team is made of.