The Texas A&M football team will open the 2014 college football season on Thursday, August 28 against South Carolina in a nationally televised game on the SEC Network. The game against South Carolina will let Aggies fans know if the 2014 version of the team is a legitimate competitor for the SEC title, or if they are still in the building process.
The 2014 season will be like no other in college football history. The existence of a college football playoff means that teams are not required to go undefeated in order to compete for a national title at the end of the season.
The overall strength of the Southeastern Conference means that there will likely be two SEC teams among the final four competing for the national title. The first game of the 2014 season will tell the nation whether the Aggies are among the elite group capable of competing for a national title.
Both Teams Have Questions
The 2014 season opener for A&M and South Carolina will match up two teams who lost program-defining players from the previous year. Texas A&M lost Johnny Manziel to early entry into the NFL draft, while South Carolina suffered the same fate with Jadeveon Clowney.
The Aggies saw All-American wide receiver Mike Evans leave early for the NFL, while the Gamecocks lost All-SEC defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles to the NFL a year early. Both teams will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks in 2014.
The Aggies coaches are still trying to figure out who will replace Manziel. In Columbia, senior Dylan Thompson will take over for the departed Connor Shaw.
Thompson played in 10 games in 2013 and completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 784 yards and four touchdowns. He will be a solid quarterback for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina must replace five starters off of a defense that allowed 350 yards per game in 2013 to rank No. 19 in the country. The Gamecocks lost three starters from their defensive line. The newcomers are going to need to prove that they can stop the run and play the physical defense that South Carolina fans have become accustomed to.
The Aggies program has been defined by Manziel's greatness over the past two seasons. The offense needs to show that they were not a one-man team, while the defense needs to improve on their pathetic showing in 2013, when they allowed 475 yards per game.
What to Expect?
The formula for winning at South Carolina has been the same since head coach Steve Spurrier took over the program. The Gamecocks try to grind you down with their running game, while their physical defense limits the opposing teams scoring opportunities.
The Aggies will see a steady dose of junior running back Mike Davis on August 28. Davis rushed for 1,183 yards and caught 34 passes for 352 yards in 2013. He will be the focus of the Gamecocks offense in 2014.
Davis will run the ball behind an offensive line that returns four of the five starters from 2013. The Gamecocks probably have the biggest pair of offensive tackles in the country with 6'8", 348-pound senior left tackle Corey Robinson and 6'6", 334-pound junior right tackle Brandon Shell.
Those two will provide quite a challenge for the Aggies' young defensive ends. Sophomore Daeshon Hall and true freshman Myles Garrett will be giving up almost 100 pounds per man against their Gamecocks opponents.
The Gamecocks lost two of their three starting receivers and their quarterback from 2013. Expect South Carolina to pound the ball with Davis and attempt deep play-action tosses to explosive junior receiver Shaq Roland. He averaged 18.2 yards per reception and scored five touchdowns on 25 catches in 2013.
The Aggies will try to slow the Gamecocks running game with a young, but deep, defensive line. The Aggies played three true freshmen on the defensive line in 2013. They will benefit from that experience in 2014 with more depth at the position than they have had in years.
If rising sophomore nose guard Isaiah Golden returns to school, the Aggies will have a solid interior rotation on their defensive line. Golden will be able to team up with Hardreck Walker, Jay Arnold, Alonzo Williams and Zaycoven Henderson on the interior of the defensive line. The Aggies will be able to rotate fresh bodies in to prevent the line from tiring against the Gamecocks' physical front.
On offense, the Aggies also return four of their five starting offensive linemen. They will lean on talented running backs Trey Williams and Tra Carson in order to take pressure off of their quarterback.
Aggies fans should expect an early dose of short passes to tight end Cam Clear and the Aggies receivers at a hurry-up pace to start the game. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin will try to get his quarterback in a rhythm with some easy passes to boost his confidence on the road.
South Carolina will try to control the pace of the game with their strong running game and physical defense. It is important that the Aggies put some points on the board early so this does not devolve into a low scoring game.
Spurrier will attempt to do to A&M what Les Miles and LSU have had success doing. They will try to turn the game into a battle in a phone booth. The Aggies need to spread the field on offense and force the Gamecocks defenders into matching up with the Aggies' skill position players one-on-one.
What It Means
The South Carolina game is an important one for the Aggies because what it represents at the national level. The Gamecocks finished the 2012 and the 2013 seasons in the top 10. They will likely enter the 2014 season ranked in the top 10.
If the Aggies can go on the road and knock off a top-10 team in front of a national television audience, it will prove to all the critics that the Aggies are not a one-man team and that they are a team to be reckoned with in 2014.
A win would give the Aggies a huge confidence boost to start the season, in a year when they are going to face eight bowl teams in their schedule. The win would give the Aggies' young players some much-needed momentum.
A loss by the Aggies or the Gamecocks would not end their season. It is only one game and there will be a one-loss team among the final four teams in the college football playoff. However, the team that loses will have squandered a prime opportunity to make a strong impression on voters and fans everywhere.
South Carolina will not be the best team the Aggies play in 2014, but it is the most important game because of what a win in Columbia would represent.