GAINESVILLE, Fla. This game has been on the schedule for months, but still, all of it does seem a little strange.
Florida at Texas A&M. The Southeastern Conference opener for both schools. The Gators first trip to Kyle Field and their first game in the Lone Star State in 30 years.
You can understand some of the confusion surrounding Texas A&Ms SEC debut, such as when Aggies linebacker Sean Porter was asked this week about Gators running back Mack Brown.
Excuse me, Porter replied, wondering why a TV reporter would care what he thought about the Texas coach with Florida coming to town.
The reporter clarified the question.
Oh, thats the backup running back, right? Porter said. I really havent watched much film on him. I guess hes pretty solid.
The Gators and Aggies dont know each other well, but come Saturday afternoon, they will get to know each other up close and personal in a game that has College Station jacked up more than normal. Texas A&M is selling commemorative T-shirts to mark the occasion, ESPNs College GameDay is in town, and the game sold out as fast as any in school history.
Texas A&M fans waited on first-year coach Kevin Sumlins debut all summer. And then they had to wait 10 days longer than expected when Hurricane Isaac postponed Texas A&Ms season opener last week at Louisiana Tech. That added to the games already impressive list of firsts.
The Gators undoubtedly can expect a rabid welcome when they take the field Saturday.
The energy level at our university is as high as its ever been, Sumlin said. There is a real buzz around here. If anything, its put us on the same page as our fans. Two weeks ago the questions were how do you keep your team focused on going on the road to play Louisiana Tech when everybody, all your fans, are waiting to play Florida?
For me, its been a situation where we have pretty much gotten in line with the fans.
The Gators opened their season with a 27-14 win over Bowling Green. Their anticipation of Saturdays game against the Aggies is for much different reasons.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp announced Monday that sophomore Jeff Driskel will make his first career start at quarterback. The Gators, like the Aggies, want to get off to a good start in the SEC. They have a road game at Tennessee looming a week from their trip to College Station.
While none of Floridas players have experienced a game at Kyle Field, Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have. Muschamp was Browns defensive coordinator at Texas for three seasons and Pease was once Baylors offensive coordinator.
They have told the Gators what to expect.
We played there twice, Pease said. The thing I do remember is when you look up there in the stands in the third quarter and they are all swaying, you cant look or you are going to get like vertigo, Pease said, referring to Texas A&Ms famed 12th Man. Those stands start moving. They are into it. Its a great atmosphere to play in. Thats something you cant get caught up in. You really have to block it out as a player and coach. Weve got to be able to handle the noise. Well work on that.
Muschamp said he is more concerned about other factors than the atmosphere. He wants to see fewer penalties than the 14 committed by the Gators against Bowling Green. The Gators have watched film of each penalty this week to improve.
There is also Driskels first start, Sumlins reputation as one of the games top offensive minds his Houston team led the nation in total yards (599.1) and points (49.3) last season and the quest to continue to create more turnovers on defense.
Toss in the fact its the SEC opener, and a win could open up new possibilities moving forward.
It is an important game because its the next one and its an SEC game, Muschamp said. I think its critical. Is it the end all? No, but its a critical game for us to go on the road and play well, and improve from Game 1 to Game 2, which we need to, and I think we will.
This team understands that we have some things to work on and we need to pay more attention to the details of the things we need to do at each position, each call and each situation to play better.
Driskel isnt the only quarterback making his first career start. Texas A&M redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel is set to become the first Aggies freshman to start the season opener since 1944. Depending on whom you ask, one potential advantage the Gators have is that they have a game behind them and the Aggies dont.
Muschamp said you can look at it a thousand ways.
Sumlin had his own take.
I think its an advantage for Florida to be able to play, Sumlin said. That comes from experience. Its an advantage to play and to get to know your team. We would have liked to have played last week. Ill put it that way.
In the season opener, Driskel played the first quarter and watched fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett play the second quarter. He then played the second half and finished 10-for16 for 148 yards and a touchdown.
The Gators didnt dig deep into the playbook in Peases first game as offensive coordinator, which Sumlin expects to change on Saturday. Sumlin and Pease are good friend who got to know each other several years ago at a coaching clinic.
He's a guy that I have a tremendous amount of respect for and I know there's a reason why he was a highly sought-after coordinator last year," Sumlin said. I think does an excellent job, makes you defend the whole field, makes you be gap-conscious, hides a lot of things with shifts and motions, unbalance, gives you all the looks but will also do all that with window dressing and give you power football, throw play-action and double moves and things like that.
There are a lot of historic firsts looming over Saturdays game, but the Gators downplayed all the talk about the buzz.
Its a real intense atmosphere state-of-the-art stuff, Gators safety Josh Evans said of Kyle Field. I mean, its the Swamp. Were used to 90,000. Were used to the same crowd. That wont impact us.
What would be a perfect trip for the Gators in their first visit to College Station?
A win just to show that we are Florida and we are still here, senior offensive lineman James Wilson said.