On paper, it's one of the tougher openers South Carolina has faced in some time, with a ranked opponent coming to Williams-Brice Stadium to kick off the season. Although all eyes are already on that SEC East showdown against Georgia in two weeks, this 6 p.m. matchup against speedy Texas A&M still looms as crucial for a program that's had to replace key starters at many positions, and is trying to get back to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2010.
The Gamecocks have said goodbye to Connor Shaw, he of the 27-5 record as a starter and unbeaten home mark. Stepping behind center is Dylan Thompson, who's hardly green - the senior is 3-0 as a starter, came off the bench last year to beat Central Florida, and finished off Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl. His outing last year at Missouri, where a battered Shaw had to rally USC to win, stands as an aberration by contrast. Although the Gamecocks will continue to run a zone read, Thompson is less mobile than his predecessor - so expect the new QB to throw it out more often.
With more of a traditional passer behind center, the ground game becomes the full responsibility of runners like Mike Davis, whose 1,183-yard season in 2013 was fourth-best in school history. Davis missed some time in preseason camp with bruised ribs, but on Wednesday head coach Steve Spurrier pronounced him ready to go. Although the RB stable is deep with Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson, Davis is a special player capable of breaking the game open with long carries like the 75-yard burst he recorded in the opener against North Carolina a season ago. If Thompson's passing game can stretch the defense, Davis could find even more space in which to work.
No Clowney around
With No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jadeveon Clowney off smashing through opponents with the Houston Texans, the defensive line has gone through something of a rebuild. Three new starters join senior J.T. Surratt, the only returnee, and they could have their hands full with Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill. There's no more Johnny Football, but A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has historically aired it out regardless of who's behind center, which means opposing defenses must get pressure on the QB. The Gamecocks' D-line could be aided in that quest by a strong and deep corps of linebackers - so deep, leading tackler Skai Moore won't start Thursday - which will prompt defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to move to a 3-4 formation on occasion.
The losses on the defensive line have perhaps overshadowed departures in the secondary that may prove equally as important. Cornerbacks Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton ranked second and fourth last season, respectively, in total tackles, and now they're both trying to make NFL rosters. Converted safety Brison Williams takes over one spot, with true freshman Al Harris Jr. - son of the longtime NFL player - holding down the other. They're going to be tested early, given that Sumlin's teams have historically relied on the pass whether Johnny Manziel is playing or not.
South Carolina 24, Texas A&M 21