The first ever meeting between Texas A&M and South Carolina is upon us. Let's take a look at some of the things to watch for in this game.
3. Attack Armani Watts
The Texas A&M defensive two-deep is loaded with true freshmen. Two of them are starting, and one of those players is safety Armani Watts. Make no mistake, Watts has a bright future ahead of him in the SEC. He's a highly regarded recruit who beat out a senior for the start. Still, he plays a position where knowing exactly where to be at all times and not making mental mistakes is even more important than usual. His inexperience may hurt him in that regard, particularly with his first college action coming on the road in one of the sport's toughest venues. This isn't a make-it-or-break-it key to victory, but if I were Spurrier, I'd make regular efforts to test Watts's part of the field and see if Dylan Thompson can catch him out of position.
2. Force some turnovers
While it stands to reason that Texas A&M won't be able to match its offensive production of the past two seasons with Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans gone to the NFL after being taken in the first round of the draft, the Aggies should still have a very good offense. They have another great offensive line and a future star at receiver in uber-recruit Speedy Noil. With Kevin Sumlin's track record coaching quarterbacks (his pedigree goes back to developing Drew Brees at Purdue), I'd also expect Kenny Hill to be more than adequate at quarterback, even if it will indeed be tough to fill Manziel's shoes.
Still, in what will be a general trend for the Aggies Thursday, there will be plenty of inexperience taking the field on offense for A&M, and that inexperience will be lining up against Carolina in a raucous opening-night atmosphere. A&M will score some points, but the potential is there for it to make some mistakes. Of course, how many mistakes it makes depends on how many Carolina forces. The Gamecocks return plenty of talent at linebacker and safety, but will the Gamecocks' new-look defensive line be able to rattle Hill enough to get him to make some errant throws? That may be unlikely against one of the best offensive lines in the nation, and if the Carolina line struggles to create pressure, look for plenty of blitzing from the linebackers.
1. Establish the run
With its talented offensive line and deep group of tailbacks, Carolina should have an excellent run game this year. Mike Davis hasn't practiced a lot this August due to minor injuries, but he'll be ready to go tomorrow, as will his capable backups. This game would be an excellent time for Carolina to flex its muscle on the ground.
First of all, while Carolina will have the opportunity to move the ball through the air, I'm concerned that Dylan Thompson may come out tight in his first game as "the guy." He's been known to play too excited before and to sail his throws and put the ball in danger. The running game can make things easier on him by setting up favorable down-distance situations and letting him build confidence by hitting easy throws.
Second of all, Kevin Sumlin runs an up-tempo Air Raid offensively. Up-tempo offenses are partially premised on wearing out opposing defenses by forcing them to play tons of downs in a short span of time. I'm a firm believer that one way to negate this approach is to keep the opposing offense off the field. If Carolina can mount some long-ish scoring drives, it will limit the Aggies' ability to force the kind of game they want to play offensively. Our run game can help our defense, which will have its work cut out for it tomorrow night.
Since this is the first game of the season, it's hard to know exactly what we have. However, all signs currently point to us having the advantage in this game. At worst, the offenses may be roughly equal (albeit with radically different styles), while Carolina should have a much better defense. A&M will be without two defensive starters due to injury, which makes matters even worse for a unit that was already expected to struggle. Carolina also has home-field advantage, which may be particularly meaningful in this game given how much youth is taking the field for the Aggies.
All of this being the case, while I expect to see A&M move the ball most of the evening and to keep it close early on, I think that whereas it's not unreasonable to expect we'll score most of the times we get the ball, our defense should be able to get a few stops along the way. I'm going with 38-24 Gamecocks.