COLUMBIA - There were whispers all August, and the attitude went slightly public at times: South Carolina might be better off without Jadeveon Clowney.
Or at least as good on defense, eventually.
The in-house theory went something like this: Sure, the iconic defensive end was All-Planet sensational - and any team wants a talent worthy of the first overall pick in the NFL draft - but he was also a distraction at times. And now that he's gone to Houston, well, the Gamecocks have come together as an unselfish unit.
Then No. 21 Texas A&M zipped down the field on its first possession Thursday night and kept marching, all the way to a 52-28 victory over heavily favored No. 9 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"They did exactly what we actually prepared for," Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward said. "We figured they would get us in space. I thought we would do better though."
Eventually, this re-fitted South Carolina defense might be pretty good.
Maybe the Gamecocks worked some kinks out against the Aggies and first-year starting quarterback Kenny Hill. Maybe they will flatten East Carolina and NFL quarterback prospect Shane Carden next week.
But so far, so many question marks.
Was preparation the problem?
Think all of the above (plus failure to respond soon enough on offense) until South Carolina goes on a win streak. Or this post-Johnny Manziel version of Texas A&M is crowned national champion.
The burden of proof wasn't supposed to land on this Gamecocks' defense so quickly, two weeks before No. 12 Georgia is due at Williams-Brice Stadium. The only people who had Texas A&M scoring this many points in Columbia were well-served folks at the famed Dixie Chicken watering hole in College Station.
Or maybe Hill is lined up behind Manziel and Florida State's Jameis Winston as the third first-year starting quarterback in a row to win the Heisman Trophy.
The son of former Major League pitcher Ken Hill looked like it Thursday night. Ignoring the stress of a stadium full of hostility, he completed 10 passes to one receiver (Malcolm Kennedy) and at least one pass to 10 different receivers.
That was just the first half.
Thanks in large part to South Carolina cooperation.
The Gamecocks' new 3-4 alignment on defense was full of holes. Ward altered the staple 4-3 look to combat all the wide-open offenses on the schedule, including Texas A&M's fast-pace approach.
"I thought we would play a lot better," head coach Steve Spurrier said. "I've been reading like you guys have about our new 3-4 defense. Did anybody like that 3-4 defense?"
Spurrier said the Gamecocks would have been in trouble even with a "6-6" defense.
"We've got some coaching decisions to make to see if we can't find a pass rush," he said.
South Carolina watched Texas A&M make the adjustments instead of the other way around.
Having passed their way to a 10-point lead, the Aggies opted for the option on a touchdown run that made it 31-14 late in the first half.
The Gamecocks seized a stitch of momentum early in the third quarter when linebacker Skai Moore broke through for a 9-yard sack to knock Texas A&M back to the South Carolina 29.
Just as suddenly, a counter-punch: Brandon Williams took a delayed handoff, cut left and put the Aggies in business with a 24-yard run.
"I don't think it's the system," Ward said. "We have to tackle and we have to find a way to get to the quarterback."
By the way, the Gamecocks won their 2013 season opener, defeating North Carolina, 27-10, at home.
Clowney struggled. He went sackless on a steamy night and took more heat for effort perceived as lackluster. Yet South Carolina won, as they did 33 times in 39 games with Clowney on the roster.
The post-Clowney era will require more teamwork than the Gamecocks thought all August.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff