South Carolina Football: New Year’s in Columbia

The South Carolina Football team kicks off the 2014 college football season Thursday night at 6 P.M. on the SEC Network, as they host the Johnny Manziel-less Texas A&M Aggies.

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is 23-1 is season openers in his career, with that one loss coming to South Carolina when he was the head coach of Duke in 1989, and will look to keep his 15-year winning alive in the SEC Network’s highly anticipated debut.

The Gamecocks have never faced the Aggies on the gridiron, but the two are now permanent cross-division rivals, a blessing for South Carolina, who always struggled against Arkansas, their previous Western Division opponents.

Both schools lost their starting quarterbacks from last year, both of whom were among the best dual-threat, playmaking quarterbacks in college football, and both of whom now play for the Cleveland Browns, a horrible fate that should not be wished upon anybody.

In addition to replacing their quarterbacks, both schools lost significant talent on the defensive side of the ball to graduation, the draft, and suspensions/dismissals. Here’s how South Carolina and Texas A&M matchup on paper for Thursday night’s game

USC offense v. Texas A&M defense

Despite losing Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington, the winningest quarterback in school and school history one of the most clutch receiver to don the garnet and black respectively, South Carolina’s offense should be as good, if not better, than last year.

Dylan Thompson, who has played meaningful snaps during the last two seasons including a 3-0 mark as a starter, will be prepared to make the most of his one and only year as the Gamecocks’ starter. Though not as much a threat to run on a regular basis as Shaw, he still moves in and around the pocket well, and even cemented his legend in Gamecock lore on a 20-yard designed run on third-and-19 in Memorial Stadium, which completely demoralized the Tigers.

Thompson has a more prototypical quarterback build at 6-foot-3, possess a strong arm, and sits behind possibly the best offensive line ever at South Carolina. His receiving corps is not too shabby either, despite losing Bruce Ellington. Shaq Roland, who has been slowly emerging as a star for the Gamecocks, the speedy Damiere Byrd, and freak-athlete Pharoh Cooper will see a lot of Thompson’s passes come their way this season.

In addition to Thompson’s physical abilities, and the knowledge of the offense that comes with being in the same system for four, going on five years, his leadership abilities and intangibles are second to none. He is an exceptionally grounded and level-headed leader, who understands the skill of motivating and leading by example as well as any that the South Carolina football program has had.

It doesn’t hurt that Thompson will be flanked by the deepest stable of running backs in the country. Headlined by Heisman dark horse Mike Davis, who rushed for 1183 yards last season despite being banged up down the stretch, is the Gamecock’s no. 1 back for good reason. His combination of speed and strength allows him to run hard at line, break a tackle, and beat nearly any defender in the open field. Behind Davis is Brandon Wilds, who is effectively no. 1a. No one as good as Wilds could be considered a no. 2 back. Wilds is ever bigger than Davis and, though he is a prototypical bruiser, can still break off bigs runs on the perimeter. Shon Carson and promising redshirt David Williams are good backs in their own right. What separates them is their lack of experience compared to Davis and Wilds, who have combined for ten 100-yard rushing games in two years (Mike Davis’ 2013 season and Brandon Wilds 2011 season; Wilds missed the 2012 season).

Defensively, Texas A&M was terrible last year. Last in the SEC in rush defense giving up over 220 yards per game, the Aggie defensive line only returns two starters, and their linebacking corps will feature a host of new faces. For a group that struggled to find its identity last season, this bodes well for the Gamecocks, whose running backs and offensive line should be able to tear through the Aggie front seven.

In the secondary, where Texas A&M finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense, the Aggies have one cornerback, senior Deshazor Everett, is considered to be one of the better corners in the SEC, and if he matches up with Shaq Roland, could be fun to watch, and the other starting cornerback for A&M, De’Vante Harris, will miss the opener. With holes in the rest of the secondary, Thompson should not have to force any throws Thursday night.

USC defense v. Texas A&M offense

Johnny Manziel is gone, as is Mike Evans, Manziels go-to guy and one of the best receivers in the SEC last year. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin named Kenny Hill as Johnny Manziel’s replacement a few weeks ago, though South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorzeno Ward has said he is prepared to face Hill as well as freshman Kyle Allen, who was locked in a heated position battle until recent weeks.

Regardless, it is unlikely that Sumlin will rest the fate of the game on the shoulders of a quarterback, considering neither has played a meaningful snap in college (Allen is a true freshman and Hill threw 22 passes last year), and a season-opener, on the road, in one of the toughest stadiums to play in the country is not a good place to start. Instead, Sumlin will rely on an offensive line that returns all of its starters minus left tackle Jake Matthews (drafted sixth overall in this year’s draft) and running backs Trey Williams and Tra Carson, who combined for 736 yards last season in relief of Ben Malena. Lorenzo Ward and the South Carolina defense will be just find with that.

The strength of the Gamecock defense is right up the middle, from the six-deep rotation at defensive tackle, to the extremely talented, now veteran linebackers, and up to the hard-hitting safeties. Gerald Dixon Jr., and J.T. Surratt will start at tackle with a host of other guys coming in.

At linebacker, the team’s leading tackler returns in Skai Moore, though Moore will not even start the game. How’s that for depth? Although Moore is being benched for not listening to Lorenzo Ward, who instructed Moore to get treatment on his shoulder, he will see action early and often. The best part for South Carolina fans though, is that Jonathan Walton, who will start in his place, was close enough to Moore in terms of readiness that Ward felt like he could afford to bench Moore in the opener.

If the Gamecocks have a weakness defensively this season, it will be pass rush and inexperience at corner, though Darius English will be different player after adding weight in the offseason, and Brison Williams veteran presence will help sure up the perimeter of the defense. Unless Sumlin decides to put the game in the hands of his true sophomore, the Aggies game plan should play right into the Gamecock’s strength. The Aggies might be able to run with South Carolina early, but they will not be able to get stops down the stretch, and if they have to play catch up, count of Hill making some mistakes in his first meaningful game as an Aggie.

Gamecocks pull away late: 38-17