Coaches' game plan: Key components for Texas A&M, South Carolina
You can imagine what’s on the minds of Steve Spurrier and Kevin Sumlin in the final hours before the start of the 2014 campaign.
One’s leading the SEC Eastern Division preseason favorites into battle against a worthy, nationally-ranked adversary while the other is trying to keep things somewhat simple for a first-year starting quarterback prior to the Aggies’ longest road trip of the season into the heart of one of the nation’s toughest venues.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium:
- SOLID QUARTERBACK PLAY: It’s no secret that efficiency under center often dictates winning and losing at every level of football and both passers, who replace two of the best quarterbacks in their respective programs’ history, have pressure to succeed. Kenny Hill’s a sophomore first-year starter with minimal playing experience while Dylan Thompson’s a fifth-year senior with 14 career touchdown passes who has patiently waited for his opportunity. One would think Thompson’s the more ‘game-ready’ of the two with 25 appearances in South Carolina’s balanced, zone-read attack since 2011. It’s important for both quarterbacks, but especially Hill, to avoid early mistakes which could lead to a first-half unraveling.
- CAN THE AGGIES HANG?: The opening line is 10.5 points in the ninth-ranked Gamecocks’ favor, about right considering South Carolina’s won 18 consecutive games at home and beaten three ranked teams by an average of three touchdowns per during that stretch. Under Sumlin, Texas A&M’s 10-2 on the road, a stat few have mentioned this week. The Aggies pose matchup problems for the Gamecocks across the board on offense, but South Carolina’s home field advantage is difficult to measure. Three of the Aggies’ starting wideouts Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones have never played a Division I snap outside of College Station. That could be an issue that’s not so easy to resolve if Texas A&M falls behind early.
- FIRST-GAME JITTERS: Imagine the butterflies during warm-ups for true freshmen like Texas A&M’s Noil, Myles Garrett along with South Carolina defenders Al Harris Jr. and Bryson Allen-Williams. This time last year, this impressive foursome was starring as standout performers at the prep level with supreme confidence. The role’s reversed and now the national microscope follows every step. The big stage is a coming out party for some while others falter under pressure.
- DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE: Texas A&M believes it has gotten better, especially up front. The 3-4’s a new wrinkle South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will utilize more often than usual. Both may look the part, but we’ll know which team’s defense could be a strength this season. The Gamecocks are unproven in the secondary with three new starters while the Aggies have a new starter at each level. Texas A&M was statistically abysmal last fall on defense, ranking at the bottom of the SEC in total defense and touchdowns allowed. There’s nowhere to go but up for the Aggies and the expectations are high for Mark Snyder and staff.
- WHO WILL SHOW OUT IN FRONT OF A NATIONAL AUDIENCE?: Jadeveon Clowney’s Heisman campaign ended before it started last season when millions of eyes tuned in to South Carolina’s national college football opener against North Carolina to witness the star defensive end tire out due to heat. Months of offseason love and unrealistic expectations led to what most considered a disappointing debut in his final campaign. It’s just as easy to excel as it is to flop and there’s several players who could make the Friday morning highlight package including Mike Davis, Pharoh Cooper and Ricky Seals-Jones. Deshazor Everett in the Texas A&M secondary’s also a playmaker, a crafty veteran with two career defensive scores.