No. 21 Texas A&M (0-0) at No. 9 South Carolina (0-0)
Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250)
Thursday, 6 p.m.
SEC Network (Brent Musberger, Jesse Palmer, Kaylee Hartung, Mari Taylor); Westwood Radio Network (John Sadak, Chris Doering), Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM In Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore)
SEC Network executives are popping champagne bottles after selecting a doozy for the much-anticipated debut of the latest for-profit venture in around-the-clock college sports programming. South Carolina and Texas A&M have never met on the football field, but Thursday's game is the first of many to come since the two schools are now permanent cross-divisional opponents. USC has won 14 consecutive season openers, yet rarely have played a quality opponent like the Aggies. Yes, Texas A&M lost Johnny Manziel, along with former USC defensive end Jadeveon Clowney the most publicized player in college football over the past two years.
USC OFFENSE v. TEXAS A&M DEFENSE
After waiting patiently for his turn behind Connor Shaw, the winningest quarterback in school history, Dylan Thompson's time has come as the fifth-year senior begins his first and only season as USC's starting quarterback. He is 3-0 as a starter, recording victories over East Carolina and Clemson in 2012 and Missouri in 2013 (although Shaw led the comeback in the fourth quarter).
Thompson has proven in the past that when he has adequate time to prepare, he is a very good quarterback, a positive trend for USC. Thompson threw for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the wins in 2012, as well as the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the Outback Bowl against Michigan. For his career, he has completed 55 percent of his passes (a number that must increase) for 1,1827 yards and 14 touchdowns with five interceptions.
Thompson will throw against a Texas A&M secondary missing two-year cornerback starter De'Vante Harris due to a urinary tract infection that has sidelined him for the past two weeks. Redshirt freshman Victor Davis will replace him. The Aggies finished 12th in the SEC in passing defense (253.5 yards per game) and last in total defense (475.8) by a wide margin in 2013.
ALSO SEE: GamecockCentral.com's new GAMEDAY GUIDE
Best friends of any successful quarterback are a strong running game and an unshakable offensive line. Thompson has both. Junior running back Mike Davis, slowed by nagging injuries throughout preseason camp but fully healthy now, is regarded as a Heisman Trophy/Doak Walker Award contender and has generated plenty of buzz in the offseason after logging the fourth highest single season rushing total in school history (1,183 yards) with 11 touchdowns. Avoiding the week-to-week hammerings dished out by SEC defenders could be determined by the health of the running backs behind him on the depth chart - Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams.
The stable of running backs will run behind what many believe is the best offensive line in school history, even factoring in the severe knee injury sustained by right guard Mike Matulis two weeks ago that will keep him on the sidelines until the second half of the season. The trio of left tackle Corey Robinson (22 career starts), left guard A.J. Cann (38 starts) and right tackle Brandon Shell (23 starts) are destined to play on Sundays, while the center/right guards spots look to be filled by a four-man rotation consisting of Cody Waldrop, Clayton Stadnik, Will Sport and Alan Knotts.
Two of Texas A&M's four starters along the defensive front return from last season when the Aggies were last in the SEC in rushing defense (222.3 ypg). Junior DE Julien Obioha (23 career starts) and DT Alonzo Williams (9 starts). Meanwhile, the current Texas A&M linebacker corps bears little resemblance to the 2013 group that struggled while employing six different starters, including three first-year players. The veteran of the LB group is senior Donnie Baggs. Last season's leading sack artist, Shaan Washington, suffered a broken clavicle in preseason camp and won't play against USC.
The USC wide receiver corps features four players eyeing breakout seasons - junior Shaq Roland (six receptions for 112 yards in Capital One Bowl), overlooked senior Nick Jones, speedy senior Damiere Byrd (fastest player on the team) and sophomore Pharoh Cooper (also kick returner and Wildcat quarterback).
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, WR Shaq Roland, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, LG A.J. Cann.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Julien Obioha, DT Alonzo Williams, MLB Jordan Mastrogiovanni, SLB Donnie Baggs, CB Deshazor Everett.
1. USC RB Mike Davis vs. TAM MLB Jordan Mastrogiovanni
2. USC WR Shaq Roland vs. TAM CB Deshazor Everett
3. USC LT Corey Robinson vs. TAM DE Julien Obioha
COACH'S COMMENT: "Texas A&M is a very good team. They are going to play a lot of young guys, but they have a lot of experience with guys coming back that were sort of freshmen last year from what we can tell. Obviously, they lost their quarterback, wide receiver and offensive lineman, three No. 1 picks last year. But they are probably a little bit like us in that they haven't had a bunch of superstars to talk about this preseason and their players are anxious to earn their way, just like our guys. Our guys are anxious to show the country we can play ball and we have a lot of good players also." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
TEXAS A&M OFFENSE vs. USC DEFENSE
Johnny Who? Texas A&M fans hope to ask that question after Thursday night's contest in which true sophomore Kenny Hill, who attempted just 22 passes a year ago, makes his first career start. His backup? True freshman Kyle Allen.
While Texas A&M faces the unenviable task of replacing 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Hill brings impressive credentials to the table - he was the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Texas - but has yet to face the hostile environment he will encounter Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. How he handles the adverse conditions is a major subplot to the game. If he struggles, it could be a long night for the Aggies' offense.
Hill was thrust into the starters' role after 2013 backup Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU. He won the ensuing camp competition with Allen, the nation's top prep quarterback for the 2014 recruiting cycle. Sumlin announced on Aug. 16 that Hill, the lone QB on the Aggies roster with a career passing attempt, would start the opener.
Because an inexperienced quarterback will be at the controls, Sumlin could lean on a stable of running backs and a quality offensive line that returns four of five starters from a season ago. Three running backs - juniors Tra Carson, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams (no relation) - will seek to replace Ben Malena, the starter for the past two seasons. Manziel was A&M's top rusher the past two seasons as he often made something out of nothing as he sidestepped and eluded tacklers.
The much-publicized loss of Manziel was huge, but so was Mike Evans' decision to declare for the NFL Draft as well. The Aggies were the only FBS team to have four receivers with 50+ catches and 600+ receiving yards. However, only Malcolm Kennedy (60 receptions for 658 yards in 2013) returns from that quartet. The new crop of receivers includes 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones (71-yard TD catch vs. Rice, then suffered season-ending knee injury) and two heralded freshmen expected to give an immediate boost to the passing attack: Speedy Noil and Josh Reynolds.
Texas A&M's roster of receivers will certainly challenge a Gamecock secondary rebuilding after losing four cornerbacks in the offseason. Senior Brison Williams was moved from safety and will be joined in the starting lineup by true freshman Al Harris Jr., son of the former NFL standout. Rico McWilliams and two other freshmen - Chris Lammons and Wesley Green could see action as well.
USC's starting linebacker corps was shaken up on Tuesday when defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward announced Jonathan Walton would start ahead of last season's leading tackler, Skai Moore because the latter missed an appointment to get medical treatment for a dinged shoulder. T.J. Holloman will start at middle linebacker ahead of Kaiwan Lewis.
Perhaps the most intriguing defensive question heading into the opener is how often USC will utilize the 3-4 alignment compared to the 4-2-5 scheme that has served as the base defense since 2008. When the Gamecocks go to the 3-4, true freshman Bryson Allen-Williams and Larenz Bryant will share the B.O.B. job, the fourth linebacker in the formation.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Kenny Hill, RB Tra Carson, WR Speedy Noil, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, C Mike Matthews.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Darius English, DE Gerald Dixon, DR J.T. Surratt, OLB Skai Moore, SPR Sharrod Golightly, CB Brison Williams, CB Al Harris Jr.
1. TAM QB Kenny Hill vs. USC OLB Skai Moore
2. TAM WR Speedy Noil vs. USC CB Brison Williams
3. TAM LT Cedric Ogbuehi vs. DE Darius English
COACH'S COMMENT: "They (South Carolina) know what they're doing. You don't win 11 games three years in a row in this league without being pretty good across the board. This will be a great test for us right now. We've got a lot of guys that I'm looking forward to getting on the field against a quality program in South Carolina, a top 10 opponent, in an SEC game." - Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Even
Offensive Line - Even
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Edge to USC
Secondary - Even
Special Teams - Edge to Texas A&M
SYNOPSIS: Unless they moved the Iron Bowl to the start of the season, the SEC Network couldn't have picked a better game to debut the much anticipated channel. Available in 90 million homes, the TV audience should be huge for opening night of the Division I (FBS) college season. Expectations are soaring in Columbia with a fifth-year senior quarterback, a deep stable of running backs, possibly the best offensive line in school history and underrated wide receivers. We keep hearing Texas A&M is a very talented team, and it is. Much of that young talent will be on display for the first time Thursday night. If this game was being played at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, (these same two teams square off there in 2015), the meter might tilt more to the Aggies. But asking a young team to walk into Williams-Brice Stadium and pull out a conference win on the road is probably a bit much. Certainly, the Aggies will give the Gamecocks a tussle, but the home field advantage for USC will be too much for them to overcome.
PREDICTION: Sure, Texas A&M has gained 400 or more yards of offense in 23 of 26 games under Kevin Sumlin, but all those games came with Johnny Manziel playing quarterback. Kenny Hill, son of a former major league pitcher, makes his first career start at quarterback for the Aggies and it just happens to come at one of the rowdiest stadiums in America, where the Gamecocks have won 18 games in a row. Will he get rattled? How Hill and the Texas A&M offense handles the environment is one of the intriguing subplots entering this game along with how the Texas A&M defense will look after an atrocious season in 2013. Conversely, Dylan Thompson is able to make his second career start at home knowing most of the 80,000 fans inside the stadium are rooting for him to succeed in the first start of his only year as the USC starting quarterback. Crowd noise will play a major role in this game and undoubtedly spark USC towards a 19th straight home win.
The Pick: USC 34, TEXAS A&M 21