Texas A&M (4-0, 2-0) squares off against South Carolina (2-2, 1-2) on Saturday and the opposing SEC divisional teams are meeting at a time when the two programs are trending in opposite directions. A win on the resume for either team is significant but for different reasons.
A year ago, South Carolina started the season 2-4 losing head coach Steve Spurrier to an abrupt retirement before the Vanderbilt game. Despite going 1-5 under interim head coach Shawn Elliot, the Gamecocks were very competitive pushing then-No. 1 Clemson to a 37-32 finish and even put a scare into the Aggies in College Station before falling 35-28. The turnaround from 2015 to '16 under new head coach Will Muschamp shows a massive rebuilding project launched with a couple years needed before the wine and roses days of the 2011-13 years return.
On the other sideline, Aggie fans have seen the start to this movie a few times under head coach Kevin Sumlin. The Aggies have headed into October undefeated in each of the past two seasons only to end the month 0-3 in 2014 and 2-2 last season. Another 2-2 October could put Sumlin on the proverbial hot seat. For now, A&M enters the South Carolina matchup as a potential challenger to Alabama in the SEC West.
A win for No. 9 Texas A&M sets up a two-game stretch against Tennessee and Alabama to prove their national championship worthiness. The Gamecocks need four more wins to be bowl eligible. With two potential “gimmes” left in UMass and Western Carolina, where are the other two wins going to come from with this tough schedule?
Texas A&M at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Line: Texas A&M -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can South Carolina Slow Down RB Trayveon Williams
No one has stopped Williams yet this season and the Gamecocks' defense does not look like the unit to slow the true freshman’s roll. The Aggies, with the help of dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight, have the 10th-ranked rushing attack in the nation, averaging 269 yards per game. The passing game is not perfect but is doing enough to win games, averaging 276 yards and opening up running lanes.
Even South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp’s keen defensive mind has not morphed the Gamecocks into a salty unit… yet. South Carolina is allowing 200 yards per game on the ground and 198 through the air. The Aggies as a collective unit have to be licking their chops watching film on the Gamecocks.
2. Will South Carolina’s Offense Show Up?
If ever there was a good time for South Carolina to find some rhythm and offensive production, playing against a solid Texas A&M defense would be a good start. The Gamecocks rank near the bottom in the FBS in nearly every major offensive statistical categories. The picture may be painted best with two stats:
* 90 rushing yards per game, No. 124 in the FBS
* 192 passing yards per game, No. 101 in the FBS
Freshman quarterback Brandon McIIwain is taking some early collegiate lumps heading into his third career start and is in for another long day against the Aggies' fantastic defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. South Carolina’s top receiver, Deebo Samuel, is still out with a hamstring injury limiting an already struggling offense even further. Without Samuel, McIIwain was 15-of-30 passing for 177 yards against Kentucky last week. Where the dual-threat signal-caller could hurt the Aggies is with his legs. He netted 91 rushing yards against the Wildcats.
3. Can Trevor Knight Connect with his Receivers?
About the only thing that will hold back the Aggies this year on offense is Knight’s accuracy. Since his first three collegiate seasons with Oklahoma, Knight has never been known for his completion percentage. That trend has continued, with Aggie connecting on just 53.2 percent of his passes thus far despite perhaps having the most talented receiving corps in the nation as his disposal. Josh Reynolds (17 rec., 307 yds., 3 TDs) and Christian Kirk (21-211-3) have been Knight’s top targets this season. Ricky Seals-Jones (10-175-0), another top talent, might be limited after injuring his ankle against Arkansas.
South Carolina could represent a trap game for Texas A&M with both Tennessee and Alabama lingering. The Gamecocks have to hope the Aggies touch down in Columbia with their heads still in the clouds; otherwise this game could get ugly quick.
South Carolina freshman quarterback Brandon McIIwain is getting a step up in competition facing one of the best defensive end combos in the nation. Can he remain poised in the pocket standing in to take the big hit while delivering a strike downfield, or will he panic opting to look at one receiver and then tuck and run?
Texas A&M has too much firepower for the undermanned Gamecocks. Seeing how long head coach Kevin Sumlin keeps his foot on the offensive pedal will determine the final margin.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, South Carolina 10
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.