The SEC Network's debut game features two teams with much to prove in the wake of high-profile departures when the No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks play host to the No. 21 Texas A&M Aggies.
For the visitors, a new era begins under center with Johnny Manziel out of the picture. Now in his third year with the school, coach Kevin Sumlin and his new-look offense will get a shot at a South Carolina defense hoping to replace a few notable starters, the highlight being Jadeveon Clowney.
There is a tad of bad blood to this one due to some schedule disagreements, but as ESPN Stats & Info points out, the general consensus seems to be that the higher-ranked team and host will come out on top:
Of course, anything can happen on the field, especially in the SEC. Below, let's take a look at all of the pertinent game info and a few storylines to monitor.
When: Thursday, August 28, 6 p.m. ET
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
Television: SEC Network
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 58
- Spread: South Carolina (-13)
Team Injury Reports
|Darian Claiborne||LB||08/06/2014||was dismissed from the team||Out||disciplinary|
|Victor Davis||CB||08/21/2014||is out indefinitely||Suspended||disciplinary|
|Isaiah Golden||DT||08/06/2014||was dismissed from the team||Out||disciplinary|
|De'Vante Harris||CB||08/11/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||illness|
|Shaan Washington||LB||08/15/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||collarbone|
|Rory Anderson||TE||08/22/2014||is questionable for Thursday's game against Texas A&M||Questionable||triceps|
|Mike Matulis||G||08/16/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Jamari Smith||CB||08/21/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||foot|
|Cody Waldrop||C||08/22/2014||is questionable for Thursday's game against Texas A&M||Questionable||oblique|
Injury reports via USA Today.
What's at Stake
Everything. As in, the SEC.
It's a crossover contest, yes, but one that is going to set one team back in a major way in its respective division of the conference. This is especially the case in Steve Spurrier's mind, who took the time to take a parting shot at Thursday's opponent recently concerning its schedule crafting as of late, per Josh Kendall of GoGamecocks.com:
They haven’t played the bigger teams so their schedule has been a little misleading.
I find it interesting that they quit playing Texas. They played Texas 115 years like we have played Clemson and then they left that Big 12 conference and both schools got mad at each other and said, ‘We aren’t going to play you anymore.’ It would be like us and Clemson saying we are not playing anymore. Our whole state would go crazy. The governor would get involved in that.
That's one way to get the blood boiling a bit between the two sides. The man has a point, though, as the Aggies will find it mightily difficult to recover from a loss this week. A nonconference slate that features Lamar, Rice and SMU won't do Sumlin and Co. any favors, especially with trips to Alabama and Auburn in the cards too.
South Carolina has an easier go of it, sans trips to Auburn, what should be a much better Florida team and a date with Clemson to close the season.
It's the matchup both teams wanted, but the one neither can afford to lose.
Boots to Fill
The big story is the absence of Johnny Football.
Manziel, who threw for 4,114 yards and 37 touchdowns to go with 759 more yards on the ground and nine scores last year—the year he didn't win the Heisman—is gone. In his place is sophomore Kenny Hill, he of 22 career pass attempts.
Hill beat out freshman Kyle Allen and is a dual-threat presence in the same vein as Manziel—traits quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital says won him the job.
"He's been here for a year, he's learned under Johnny Manziel so he understands how this offense operates," Spavital said, per ESPN.com's Sam Khan Jr. "He's more of an athletic guy. He has a pretty quick release, too."
Notice that none of this mentions the loss of wideout Mike Evans. It is an easy pill to swallow thanks to the presence of true freshman Speedy Noil, a game-breaking threat both on offense and special teams. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman puts it best:
#Aggies lost a Top10pick at WR & still may have nation's best crop of WRs. FR Speedy Noil is a stud. 45-inch vertical & physical as heck.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) August 13, 2014
The biggest questions for the Gamecocks come on the defensive side of things, and not just because of Clowney's departure.
Remember that starters Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton are also gone, meaning J.T. Surratt is the last man standing from last year's beef in the trenches. His ability to help along the younger players around him will have a ripple effect on the entire unit.
But don't pretend that the South Carolina offense does not have issues either. The unit is without the winningest quarterback in school history, Connor Shaw, not to mention the sure-handed Bruce Ellington.
The good news is that senior signal-caller Dylan Thompson has four years of experience in the offense and has shown flashes when asked to take the reins. Even better, Spurrier hints that the players believe in the familiar face, per William Gunter of 560 The Team:
Spurrier says players have a lot of confidence in QB Dylan Thompson and believe he can take them a long way this year.— William Gunter (@WillGunter560) August 24, 2014
Whichever team can have more of a seamless transition on units that features new faces in prominent roles will likely emerge the victor.
If that sounds simple, that's because it is.
Expect Thursday to be the Mike Davis show.
No, rumblings about his health are not an issue. Just ask him:
Y'all really think I'm going to miss the first game ? 😂😂😂 ok— IG Mike28Davis (@Mike28davis) August 21, 2014
Which team will win?
Davis is a surefire Heisman contender this year just one season removed from taking a minimal 203 totes for 1,183 yards and 11 scores on a 5.8 per-carry average.
For as much talent as the Aggies tout, the young defense is not to the point where it will be able to handle that sort of efficiency in a proper manner. Furthermore, to rely on an inexperienced quarterback for production in his first start in a hostile environment is a risky endeavor.
Spurrier doesn't lose on Thursdays. The Gamecocks have won 18 straight and have some semblance of strong continuity on the offensive side of things. It won't get ugly, but Davis and Thompson will be able to get the job done to open the season.
Prediction: Gamecocks 35, Aggies 28
Statistics courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.