(21) Texas A&M (0-0) at (9) South Carolina (0-0)
Thursday, August 28, 6 p.m. (ET)
The Sports Network
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The FBS season kicks off with a bang on Thursday night with a marquee SEC showdown right out of the gate, as the ninth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks welcome the 21st-ranked Texas A&M Aggies to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Texas A&M finished 9-4 last season (4-4 in the SEC), but its downfall ultimately came in its inability to defeat the conference's best, losing a marquee shootout with Alabama (49-42), dropping a contest with eventual SEC champion Auburn (45-41) and closing out the regular season with back-to-back road losses at LSU (34-10) and Missouri (28-21).
The Aggies accepted a bid to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, their fifth straight bowl game, and in their typical high-scoring fashion they were able to hold off Duke with a 52-48 triumph. The squad finished the season ranked No. 18 in the AP poll and is 20-6 in two seasons under head coach Kevin Sumlin.
The Gamecocks dug themselves a hole early in the season by dropping their SEC opener at Georgia on Sept. 7, 41-30. From there they responded with four straight wins before being upset by Tennessee on Oct. 19, 23-21, which effectively ended their title chances.
Instead of rolling over after a tough defeat, South Carolina grew stronger over the second half of the season, ending the campaign with six straight wins, including a 27-24 double overtime victory at Missouri and a 31-17 triumph versus bitter rival Clemson. It accepted a bid to the Capital One Bowl, dismissing Wisconsin (34-24) for its third straight bowl win, and it finished the campaign No. 4 in the final AP Poll.
This marks the first-ever meeting between the Aggies and the Gamecocks.
The Aggies had one of the nation's most prolific offenses last season, ranking fifth in the country in scoring (44.2 ppg) and fourth in yardage (538.4 ypg), but the majority of that production came thanks to the production of Johnny Manziel. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time First-Team All-SEC selection shined last season by completing 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns while also causing havoc on the ground (759 yards, nine TDs).
With Manziel now suiting up for the Cleveland Browns, Texas A&M will turn to Kenny Hill (16-of-22, 183 yards, TD last season) as the starter after he beat out true freshman Kyle Allen in camp.
"The competition was close and that competition will continue to help us improve," Sumlin said, "I have talked to both quarterbacks as well as the team and we will prepare with Kenny getting the first-team reps."
The squad will also have to deal with the departure of Mike Evans, who was one of the nation's most dominant receivers a year ago with 69 receptions for 1,394 yards and 12 scores. Malcome Kennedy (60 receptions, 658 yards, seven TDs) will serve as one of the top options, and former top recruit Ricky Seals- Jones, who suffered a season-ending injury early in 2013, also has high expectations.
In the backfield, Ben Malena (551 yards, 10 TDs) is gone as well, but with the combination of Trey Williams (407 yards, six TDs) and Tra Carson (329 yards, seven TDs), the running game appears to be in good hands, especially with four starters along the offensive line returning.
With such a high-flying offensive attack last season, the Aggies' clear downfall was the poor play of its defense, which allowed 32.2 ppg and 475.8 ypg (last in the SEC and 111th nationally), but the good news is that, unlike the offense, the defense has plenty of returning continuity with seven starters coming back.
The Aggies struggled with the pass rush a season ago, and they are in even worse shape than they figured, as last year's leading sack artist Gavin Stansbury (47 tackles, 3.0 sacks) left the program for personal reasons in July. Defensive tackle Alonzo Williams (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and linebacker Shaan Washington (3.0 sacks) are the only returning players who have experience getting pressure on the quarterback.
Luckily the team returns all four starters in the secondary in cornerbacks Deshazor Everett (73 tackles, two INTs) and De'Vante Harris (56 tackles, INT) and safeties Howard Matthews (90 tackles, three INTs) and Floyd Raven (38 tackles).
The Gamecocks had a very efficient offense a season ago, putting up 34.1 ppg and 452.3 ypg. A big reason for the unit's strong play was the presence of senior quarterback Connor Shaw (.634 completion percentage, 2,447 passing yards, 24 TDs, INT, 558 rushing yards, six TDs). Despite his departure, the offense will enjoy plenty of continuity with eight returning starters.
Incumbent quarterback Dylan Thompson gained valuable experience playing behind Shaw the last few years and saw a decent amount of playing time in 2012 and 2013 (18 total TDs). Spurrier is confident that Thompson is ready to take on full-time duties under center.
"We really believe he's a very good player and has a chance to lead us to a big season," Spurrier said. "He's a fifth-year player. He's been to all the games. He's 3-0 as a starter. He was the only quarterback in the nation to beat UCF (last season). He's got to pack his college career into one season, and he's the type of young man who really wants to make the most of it."
The presence of Mike Davis in the backfield will take plenty of pressure off of Thompson. Davis was a work horse as a sophomore with 203 carries for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 34 receptions for 352 yards.
In the absence of Bruce Ellington (49 receptions, 775 yards, eight TDs), there will be more targets in the passing game to go around for Damiere Byrd (34 receptions, 575 yards, four TDs), Nick Jones (27 receptions, 281 yards, five TDs) and Shaq Roland (25 receptions, 455 yards, five TDs), as well as Davis coming out of the backfield.
South Carolina has been known for its great defense over the past two seasons, and while the unit wasn't quite dominant in 2013, it was still impressive in allowing just 20.3 ppg and 350.0 ypg while forcing 30 turnovers. Losing All- American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney certainly doesn't help (other important pieces from last season Kelcy Quarles, Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton are also gone), but there's still a lot of talent for Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to work with.
All three starting linebackers are back in the fold. Skai Moore led the team with 56 tackles and four interceptions, while Kaiwan Lewis (54 tackles, two INTs) and Sharrod Golightly (47 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FR) were solid as well. Marquis Roberts (48 tackles) was also a big factor as just a freshman.
Brison Williams (45 tackles, INT) is the only returning starter in the secondary. Senior Sidney Rhodes is the veteran member of the defensive back clan that boasts three sophomores and six freshmen.
Darius English and Gerald Dixon Jr. saw limited action as freshmen last year playing behind Clowney and Quarles but will have their chance to shine this season stepping into the starting lineup.
Texas A&M, while still very talented, will need to get used to life after Johnny Football, and heading into hostile territory against a loaded South Carolina team is not an ideal way to kick off a new era. The Aggies should make it a game, but the Gamecocks will ultimately be too much to handle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Carolina 34, Texas A&M 24
08/27 17:00:54 ET