The SEC cross-divisional showdown between South Carolina (3-1) and Texas A&M (3-1) in College Station should be a wild ride for the coaches, players and fans alike. Both squads enter the game still feeling their way forward and trying to set their identities on offense. A&M is coming off a 50-43 overtime victory against Arkansas, while the Gamecocks had to reach deep to erase a 13-0 deficit in the fourth quarter and post a 17-16 home win against Louisiana Tech. Neither team can afford to look ahead in a game that should produce late fourth-quarter fireworks.
South Carolina fans breathed a collective sigh of relief last week after their squad walked off the field with a win. Quarterback Jake Bentley continued to show signs of improvement and appears to have found a new go-to guy in Bryan Edwards. More importantly, the offense might finally have an ally in true freshman kicker Parker White. White had missed his first four attempts but nailed a 31-yard try with seven seconds left to down the Bulldogs. That forward momentum and growth now carry into a tough matchup against Texas A&M.
Texas A&M found yet another way to beat Arkansas, keeping disgruntled Aggie fans off head coach Kevin Sumlin's case for another week. True freshman quarterback Kellen Mond turned in his best overall performance of the season, completing 14-of-27 passes for 216 yards with two passing scores and an interception while rushing 10 times for 109 yards. The difference-maker for A&M is All-America candidate Christian Kirk. Kirk caught five passes for 110 yards with two touchdowns, including the game winner, and took a fourth-quarter kick back 100 yards for a score against the Hogs.
South Carolina at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Texas A&M -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Gamecocks find their offense early?
Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz was on the doorstep of another big potential upset with his defense keeping South Carolina off the board for three quarters. Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley ended the game with solid numbers — 22-of-34 for 295 yards with a touchdown and an interception — but much of the yardage was gained in the fourth quarter. With junior receiver Deebo Samuel out for the year, sophomore Bryan Edwards stepped up, securing six passes for 122 yards against the Bulldogs, but he has yet to find the end zone.
Bentley is trending upwards in stats and completion percentage. Now the offense needs to find its rhythm from the opening frame. Establishing running back Ty’Son Williams as the lead back would help.
2. Can South Carolina stop A&M’s ground game?
The Aggies want to throw the ball but are best served running it. Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams can take over a game running between the tackles. The duo seemingly churns out several explosive plays a game, breaking loose for game-changing runs. The Gamecocks are allowing 133 rushing yards per game, while A&M is picking up 260 yards per game on average; something must give.
Linebackers T.J. Brunson (42) and Skai Moore (34) lead SC in tackles and will be challenged to slow down Ford and Williams. Will Sumlin ride the ground game to another SEC victory?
3. Winning on third down
Louisiana Tech took advantage of South Carolina on third down converting 6-of-13 opportunities. For the season, the Gamecocks are among the worst in the FBS ranks at getting off the field. Opponents are converting 46 percent of their chances, ranked the Gamecocks No. 109 in the country. The Aggies are solid on both offense and defense on third down converting 44 percent (No. 37) while holding teams to 32 percent success (tied for No. 42). Winning on first and second down and keeping third-down chances at a manageable distance all goes back to the running game. Which team can run the ball effectively, and which team can stop it?
The Aggies have a tendency to jump on teams early and then take the foot off the gas in the second half. South Carolina tends to start off slow before making adjustments and then getting the offense going. The challenge for South Carolina is to keep the game close early while Jake Bentley and company figure it out. If A&M starts thinking about Alabama next week, South Carolina could give the home team a good fight.
Prediction: Texas A&M 33, South Carolina 20
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.