When the two teams squared off last in October 2016, the Gamecocks still had a lot of unanswered questions on offense. Jake Bentley had yet to make his college debut, receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel were both out with injuries, and running back Rico Dowdle was receiving his first snaps of the season. A.J. Turner was able to begin the game with a 75-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, but the Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain-led Gamecocks could not muster another touchdown, falling to the Aggies 24-13.
Following spring camp, it appears the two teams have largely swapped positions, with South Carolina returning starters at almost every position on offense and Texas A&M counting on fresh faces to make an impact.
On offense the Aggies have to replace quarterback Trevor Knight, receivers Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones, and starting offensive tackles Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor. The interior of the line should be a strongpoint, with Connor Lanfear, Colton Prater and Erik McCoy all returning after paving way for a rushing attack that averaged over 200 yards per game in 2016.
Junior receiver Christian Kirk and sophomore running back Trayveon Williams are big-time playmakers, but Kevin Sumlin will need some underclassmen to step up in order for A&M to not take a major step back on offense. Outside of Kirk, who has hauled in 183 passes in his college career, the remaining Aggies’ receivers combined for just eight catches a year ago.
Who will be throwing to these receivers is anyone’s guess right now. Last year’s backup Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond are all competing for the starting quarterback role, but it likely won’t be decided until late August.
On the defensive side of the ball there wasn’t as much attrition, but the losses were just as significant. Consensus All-American and the first overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft Myles Garrett is the most notable departure, but the loss of Daeshon Hall, a four-year starter on the opposite end of the defensive line, is another big shot to the pass rush. As a result, A&M will be counting heavily on returning defensive tackles Kingsley Keke and Zaycoven Henderson to both stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Linebacker and defensive back are two areas where the Aggies are returning most of their talent, but will be looking for improvement after lackluster performances from both groups in 2016. However, safety Armani Watts is one to watch as an All-SEC candidate as the season progresses.
The Skinny: If Texas A&M finds its young offense sputtering early like the Gamecocks did last season, South Carolina could very well walk away from College Station with an SEC road victory. The win would be crucial, as A&M marks the beginning of a six game stretch against SEC opponents for USC.