South Carolina vs. Texas A&M Complete Game Preview
Texas A&M is riding its worst two-game stretch since Kevin Sumlin took over three years ago.
After starting with five straight wins, the Aggies fell 41-23 against Alabama—an admitted improvement over 59-0 last season—and 23-3 at Ole Miss.
Sumlin's signature offense cost them both games, which has led to across-the-board questions. Who is the starting quarterback? Who should be calling the plays? Is Sumlin as good as advertised?
All of those questions are justified, if not slightly impulsive, and will receive short-term answers against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks have fallen far the past two seasons, starting fittingly with a 52-28 home loss against A&M in Week 1 last season. They entered that week No. 9 in the AP poll but have slowly since faded from relevance.
The nadir came two weeks ago, when head coach Steve Spurrier retired, handing the reins to interim coach Shawn Elliott. But the Gamecocks responded with a close win over Vanderbilt and spent last week's bye feeling good about themselves.
That's the opposite of A&M's current mindset.
Date: Saturday, October 31
Time: Noon ET
Location: Kyle Field; College Station, Texas
TV: SEC Network
Line: Texas A&M -16, according to Odds Shark
Texas A&M Keys to Victory
Figure Out the Quarterbacks
Sumlin has reopened the quarterback competition, an inevitable move considering Kyle Allen's form. Allen, freshman Kyler Murray and last week's backup Jake Hubenak will battle for the starting role. Sumlin's teams have always gone as far as the quarterback takes them; that explains the difference between the Johnny Manziel teams and the Kenny Hill/Allen team last season. Whoever wins the job in practice needs to play better. There's no two ways about it.
Shut Down Pharoh Cooper
Pharoh Cooper is the Gamecocks offense. The other 10 players are just there to help get him the ball. He can beat you as a receiver, his primary position, but also out of the backfield or with his arm.
Shutting him down is like cutting off the head of a dragon. If Texas A&M can do it, there's no way it loses this game. But shutting down Cooper is harder than it sounds; even with defenses keying on him, he's caught 40 passes for 587 yards. What sort of game plan will the Aggies come out with? How will they keep Cooper in check?
Establish the Run
South Carolina's defense ranks No. 108 against the run, per the S&P+ ratings. It ranks No. 111 in adjusted line yards, No. 119 in rushing success rate and No. 124 in opportunity rate. By any objective measure, it's a run defense that most teams would shred.
But can Texas A&M shred anyone right now? Against Ole Miss and Alabama, it rushed 52 times for 90 yards. The struggles of its run game and the struggles of its quarterbacks have not been unrelated. The Aggies must win yards on the ground.
South Carolina Keys to Victory
Ride the Shawn Elliott Momentum
South Carolina played its last game like a bat out of hell. Interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who made our Week 7 All-Heart Team, had his players ready to run through a wall.
The scariest part? That effort came against Vanderbilt. It shouldn't be as hard to wake his team up for Texas A&M. With a bye and momentum behind them, the Gamecocks might come out on fire. Can they ride that momentum to a fast start on Kyle Field?
Hold Up in the Defensive Trenches
South Carolina's defense, especially along the line, cannot plug up A&M's running game. It's undersized and inexperienced, which is why the Gamecocks rank so low in run defense.
They don't have to win the battle Saturday, but they do have to play near a draw. If A&M's offense controls the line of scrimmage, this game needn't even be played. But if the Gamecocks hold their own and force the Aggies to win through the air? At that point, anything can happen.
Protect the Quarterback
The Gamecocks are a middle-of-the-road team in pass protection, ranking No. 71 in adjusted sack rate. They'll need to overachieve against an A&M defensive line that ranks No. 1 in adjusted sack rate. Quarterback Perry Orth is solid, but he's not one to create when the play breaks down. The Gamecocks line needs a big game against Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall, Daylon Mack and the rest of A&M's front.
Texas A&M Players to Watch
WR Christian Kirk
For the first time in his seven-game career, Christian Kirk was shut down last weekend. He caught two passes for 16 yards, rushed once for a loss of two and returned one punt for a loss of four.
Texas A&M has relied, perilously, on Kirk creating big plays from nothing. When he finally didn't, the offense had no backup plan. It needs him to regain his form and emerge as an outlet for whoever starts at quarterback (see below).
DB Armani Watts
Armani Watts had 20 tackles against Ole Miss. Twenty! That's the most by an Aggies defender since Dat Nguyen in the 1998 Cotton Bowl. Watts also forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and recorded an interception against the Rebels. What will he do for his encore? Another big game would be huge against a sometimes-shaky offense.
Whoever Starts at Quarterback
Whoever starts at quarterback will be placed under a microscope. Allen has struggled so badly the past two weekends, arguably costing the Aggies both games, that any improvement is welcome.
South Carolina's defense is a good one to get right against, as Georgia's Greyson Lambert proved in Week 3, when he completed 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. If Georgia's anemic passing game can do that against the Gamecocks, A&M's better do something.
South Carolina Players to Watch
WR Pharoh Cooper
We mentioned Cooper earlier, but here's another shout-out for emphasis. No SEC team relies more heavily on one player for offense—not even Mississippi State with Dak Prescott. The Gamecocks will line Cooper up at every position—on the outside, in the backfield, in the slot—and target him incessantly (62 targets on 184 passes). He's their best chance of making things happen.
LB Skai Moore
Skai Moore is the Cooper of South Carolina's defense: a playmaker who keeps the team in games. In Week 1 he helped the Gamecocks steal a win over North Carolina, twice intercepting Marquise Williams in the end zone of a 17-13 victory. He's also recorded two picks in five SEC games, including one last week against Vanderbilt. If Allen gets the nod at quarterback, or even if he doesn't, A&M has obvious issues with turnovers. That could be problematic against Moore.
LT Brandon Shell
Brandon Shell is one of the few college tackles who can hold his own against Garrett. His transition from right tackle, where he started the past three seasons, to left tackle has gone smoothly, and his big frame (6'6", 328 lbs) and long arms allow him to control defenders. His foot speed might be an issue against Garrett, but Shell is a game-worn veteran who has battled future NFL linemen for 3.5 years. Can he control A&M's best player and give his quarterback a chance?
What They're Saying
Sumlin on reopening the quarterback battle, per Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press:
Looking for consistency across the board at quarterback. Cutting down on turnovers. This week you'll be evaluated not only based on practice, percentage in drills and everything else, but also evaluated in your leadership skills, communication with teammates and the coaching staff and general overall play and demeanor.
Sumlin on Murray, per Rieken:
Kyler has done the things necessary that we've asked him to do based on what happened on the sideline. Hopefully that's been a learning experience for him. Since that time ... he has come back has practiced and is doing the right things. That's why he was part of discussion (Monday) in this competition.
Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital on Hubenak, per Rieken:
Has done a great job for us ever since he stepped foot on campus. Can operate offense effectively. Can communicate. Can throw the football around. Went out and showed great poise Saturday and executed it cleanly. Thought he did great job for us at Ole Miss.
Elliott on how last week's bye helped him, per quotes released by the school:
It’s still moving real fast to tell you the truth. (Last) week not having a game here, this past Saturday, was a nice break. (The Vanderbilt game) week went real fast for myself and our football team. (The bye week) gave me an opportunity to get my thoughts in order, to have a plan in place—(I) didn’t’ have to go make decisions the day before—you can think things out thoroughly. It helped me to a great degree.
Elliott on containing Garrett, per the same source:
I don’t know if you stop a guy like that. You certainly can’t take seven step drops and get us in 3rd down situations and let him rush the passer. It just doesn’t match up, I don’t care what kind of offensive tackles you have got. We have to mix protections, we have to slide protect, we have to move the pocket, we have to have some cut protections – we can’t give him the same protection over and over again to let that guy get off the ball and get up the field. Both their defensive ends can rush the passer. They have a good front seven that can get after you. No 3rd-and-longs. I’m sure we will have a few. We will have to sit back there and count on our offensive line to do a great job. We have to be smart when we do it.
It's hard to lay the points—a not-insignificant 16 of them—when Texas A&M doesn't know its starting quarterback.
Which of its three options do you feel good about?
Allen, who threw three pick-sixes against Alabama and at one point missed on 14 straight passes against Ole Miss? Hubenak, who until last week was an afterthought? Or Murray, who is still a true freshman and curiously rode the bench in Oxford?
Enough questions shroud this offense that it's hard to pick the Aggies with confidence. They should still beat a team they're much better than, pounding the rock with Tra Carson and the running game, but they might not make it look easy.
South Carolina lacks A&M's talent, on both sides of the ball, but it will play hard under Elliott, scrap and claw to keep things close and seek revenge for last year's season-opener.
Will that make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter? Probably not. But A&M won't blow the doors off it, either.
Prediction: Texas A&M 34, South Carolina 20
Note: Unless otherwise cited, all advanced stats via Football Study Hall.