TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Returning Starters: 14: Offense (8), Defense (5)
Key departures: QB Ryan Tannehill (8th overall pick by the Miami Dolphins), RB Cyrus Gray (6th round selection, Kansas City Chiefs), K Randy Bullock (2011 Lou Groza Award winner), DT Tony Jerod-Eddie (5.0 sacks), WR Jeff Fuller (70 receptions, 6 touchdowns)
Player to watch offense: Running back Christine Michael - As he goes, so will the Aggies' offense. The senior tailback has had an injury-riddled career (broken leg as a sophomore and torn ACL last season), but when healthy he's proven to be a dynamic back. Before his knee injury a year ago, Michael rushed for 900 yards and eight touchdowns. Michael will be running behind one of the stoutest offensive lines in the country, as Texas A&M returns all five starters including All-American left tackle Luke Joeckel.
Player to watch defense: Linebacker Sean Porter - The outside backer paced the Aggies with 9.5 sacks last season. Along with fellow 3-4 rush end Damontre Moore (8.5 sacks), Porter, Moore and the rest of the Aggies led the Big 12 in sacks (51) in 2011. Porter was third on the team in tackles a year ago, but the senior must take his game to another level in 2012 if Texas A&M expects to go toe-to-toe with the power running teams in the SEC on a weekly basis.
2012 Outlook: New coach, new quarterback, new league. Texas A&M's introduction to the SEC in 2012 could be an uphill climb. Although HC Kevin Sumlin was successful at Houston and engineered a high-powered attack, he inherits a team without a signature quarterback or a stout defense -- potential recipes for disaster during a transition into the SEC. The Aggies do have a talented squad full of solid skill players led by Wes-Welker lookalike Ryan Swope (89 receptions, 11 TDs). Depth is a concern for the Aggies, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. Replacing Tannehill will be no small feat, and like the Gators, the battle is between a group of inexperienced underclassman (freshmen Johnny Manziel, Matt Davis and sophomore Jameill Showers). Showers appears to have the inside track but Sumlin won't name a starter until the season-opener. The Aggies finished 2011 on a positive note defeating Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but the year was chalked with disappointment as they blew five second-half leads en route to a 7-6 season. Texas A&M led Arkansas 35-17 at halftime before imploding with defensive meltdowns and excessive turnovers, losing 42-38. The Aggies corralled a nice recruiting class (ranked 15th overall according to Rivals.com) -- topped by five-star tailback Trey Williams -- but with a daunting schedule they'll do well to reach a bowl game in their first season in the SEC.
Level of Difficultly for the Gators (*based on ranking schedule 1-12, one being the hardest): 5 ... In each school's long history, the two teams have squared off just twice. In Texas A&M's only visit to Gainesville in 1962, the Gators smashed the Aggies 42-6. Fourteen years later, the Aggies got revenge, winning the 1976 Sun Bowl 37-14. The Gators have won seven straight road openers but most have been against the likes of Kentucky or downtrodden Tennessee teams; traveling to College Station and facing The 12th Man with two inexperienced signal-callers could prove troublesome. Florida will rely heavily on its vaunted defense and anticipated improved rushing attack. The early-season matchup will be a good litmus test for the Gators' offensive line, especially with the likes of LSU, Georgia and South Carolina looming later in the season. Although the laughable back-and-forth between Muschamp and Sumlin will surely be rehashed come game week, Florida's concentration will be on seizing the opportunity to win a tough road game in a hostile environment, setting the tone for the rest of the year.
Gators' chances of winning: 51%