SEC: Texas A&M Aggies
At this point, we have 11 SEC teams in all making the postseason, but there is still plenty of football left to be played. The projections will fluctuate throughout the season, but here's our best guess after Week 1.
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl): Georgia
Orange Bowl: Alabama
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Auburn
Capital One Bowl: Texas A&M
TaxSlayer Bowl: LSU
Outback Bowl: South Carolina
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Mississippi State
Belk Bowl: Florida
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Missouri
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Ole Miss
Birmingham Bowl: Tennessee
Texas A&M catches the attention of top recruits
Even though Texas A&M has put together a tremendous recruiting class this year, many expected it to be a down year on the field for the Aggies. After all A&M lost three first-round draft picks including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Much to the delight of the Aggie faithful, Texas A&M dominated SEC East opponent South Carolina last Thursday evening.
So on July 31, the day the Aggies reported for training camp and a day before the first practice, the Texas A&M coach set the tone for his players by using one of those headlines.
"Our first meeting we had as a team, ironically, was [July] 31st," Sumlin told reporters after Thursday's game. "The [coaches poll] came out at 11 or 12 or something like that. By 1 o'clock, USA Today had an article with a big headline that said '[Texas A&M is] the most overrated team in the country.' I just put that up there Day 1. That's how we started practice."
"There's probably some coaches, including myself, that took some comments personal in the offseason about how we prepare our team, what our program's all about and I think our team took that personal and they played that way [Thursday night]," Sumlin said.
Suddenly, outsider expectations of the Aggies have been recalibrated. Instead of wondering whether they'd be able to match last year's eight regular season wins, the Aggies look good enough to go toe-to-toe with any team on their schedule and exceed that number. They went on the road and convincingly defeated a ranked team that was carrying and 18-game home-winning streak into the contest.
"Our coaches had great plans and the execution level was good," Sumlin said of his team's opening-day performance. "It's hard to ever say that you think it's going to go like that but I think there was a confidence about this team coming into this year. Quite frankly, there's a little chip on their shoulder.
"Basically, nobody gave us a chance to even be close in this game. All I heard all last week was 'Two touchdowns.' If we could keep it close that'd be great. I think what we did tonight kind of showed that we're not a one-trick pony."
No, there are numerous tricks in the Aggies' bag, especially offensively. Quarterback Kenny Hill connected with a dozen different players via pass and broke Manziel's single-game school records for passing yards (511) and completions (44). Their up-tempo offense ran at near peak efficiency and South Carolina seemingly had few answers.
Moving forward, the Aggies' schedule sets up favorably. They host FCS foe Lamar on Saturday, followed by nonconference clashes against Rice and SMU before re-entering SEC play vs. Arkansas in Arlington's AT&T Stadium. The chance for a 4-0 or 5-0 start is real, which would set up a compelling road clash with Mississippi State on Oct. 4.
More importantly than the near future, Thursday's win indicates the Aggies' long-term future in the SEC is bright. The SEC West is difficult, but between their favorable recruiting (Sumlin signed consecutive top-10 classes and is on track for a third in a row this February), improving football facilities (the school is pouring nearly $500 million into them dating back to summer 2012) and rising profile nationally, the foundation for long-term success appears to be growing stronger, something Sumlin has been planning for since taking this job in December 2011.
"We've got a great university, a great location, we've got great support," Sumlin said. "Because of that, we've got a great chance to be successful. Now, the downside is we're in the SEC West. So there's a bunch of there teams there with great support and great location. We get that. But I also think that we have the ability to achieve success at a high level and sustain it and there's not a lot of places that can do that."
One game into the 2014 season, there is sufficient reason for optimism in several areas the Aggies struggled a year ago.
The most noticeable difference was the Aggies’ ability to rush the passer. A sore spot last season (the Aggies had only seven sacks in their first seven games in 2013), Texas A&M showcased its increased depth and athleticism on the edge and harassed South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to the tune of six quarterback hurries and three sacks.
One of those sacks and two of those hurries came courtesy of the Aggies’ prized 2014 recruit, true freshman Myles Garrett.
“Myles can run with the best of them,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said.
At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Garrett showed why he was pursued by most major programs in the country. He displayed strength, athleticism and determination that made him a factor in his collegiate debut.
He wasn’t alone. Defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Jay Arnold and defensive tackle Hardreck Walker also recorded hurries, while linebackers Donnie Baggs and A.J. Hilliard got sacks of their own.
Texas A&M’s much-maligned run defense held up well, too, though it got some assistance. Standout running back Mike Davis played sparingly because of a rib injury, and the Aggies’ put up points at a pace that forced South Carolina to abandon the running game to some extent.
Still, when the Gamecocks did run the ball, they were largely ineffective, averaging only three yards per carry and finishing with 67 yards on 22 attempts.
“I think we just came out and showed that we can stop the run against an experienced offensive line, one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Obioha said. “They have a great group of backs. Mike Davis couldn't play that much [Thursday], but we came out and stopped the run against a very good offense."
The night wasn’t without its flaws. Thompson beat the Aggies’ secondary deep for two long first-half touchdown passes of 69 and 46 yards, and in both cases there were errors in Texas A&M's young secondary that contributed to the big plays.
“We had a safety jump a route and get the first touchdown open and didn't get any help for [cornerback] Deshazor [Everett] and then [we had] a bust [in coverage],” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Those two big plays really kind of changed the complexion of the first half and it was a different ballgame because of two plays.”
But one encouraging sign for the secondary was the play of true freshman safety Armani Watts, who recorded an interception and two pass breakups. Sumlin and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder stressed multiple times this offseason that the Aggies needed upgraded safety play, and Watts showed signs Thursday that he might be the one to help provide it.
It wasn’t a perfect night, but given the lack of outsider expectations and last season’s forgettable performances, 2014 has already given the Aggies reason to believe this year will be better.
The Auburn Tigers struggled with the power running game. The same Arkansas Razorbacks' offense that ranked last in the SEC a year ago manhandled the Tigers’ front seven, posting 21 points by halftime.
The South Carolina Gamecocks just didn’t show up. Steve Spurrier’s defense laid down for the Texas A&M Aggies. His star running back, Mike Davis, shouldn’t have bothered dressing out.
By the time Monday rolled around, the dust settled and the big picture of the SEC became clear, it wasn’t what anyone expected. Somehow it was the Georgia Bulldogs and Texas A&M left standing as seemingly the league’s best hope of reaching the playoff.
But with all due respect to Todd Gurley’s inhuman exploits and Kenny Hill’s inspired performance, should we be sold? For that matter, should we be ready to call anyone the class of the SEC?
Right now there are far more questions than answers. Everyone, it seems, has flaws.
The East is a toss-up. Georgia certainly holds promise, but quarterback Hutson Mason still needs to show he can carry an offense, Gurley has to stay healthy and the secondary must continue improving despite missing so many starters from a season ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, has to do a complete 180 or it will lose to Georgia in two weeks and find itself in an insurmountable hole. Then there are the Florida Gators, who are a complete unknown given Mother Nature’s refusal to let them finally turn the page on 2013.
The West is even more convoluted. Texas A&M might be the real deal, but its offense is so young and it is still too early to say whether Mark Snyder has orchestrated the most impressive turnaround in history with that defense. Alabama has serious questions on defense, too, and at quarterback we might be jumping the gun a bit in proclaiming Blake Sims the answer. LSU could very well settle on Anthony Jennings under center, but he has the potential to be a reboot of Jordan Jefferson, which isn’t a good thing. Then there is Auburn, stuck with too many quarterbacks and not enough defenders, not to mention its brutal schedule.
If you’re looking for one of the favorites to run away with it, don’t hold your breath. In fact, if Week 1 showed us anything, it’s that while there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC, there is no one dominant team like in years past.
The Missouri Tigers won handily, the Ole Miss Rebels turned it on in the second half and the Mississippi State Bulldogs cruised to victory. All three should feel good about their dreams of reaching Atlanta.
Arkansas looked improved. So did the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers. Though none of the them should go booking trips for the postseason, they could play the role of spoilers.
The only real slouches are the Vanderbilt Commodores.
When it comes time for playoff jockeying and the "my conference vs. your conference" disputes, parity will be the SEC’s No. 1 point of emphasis. But it will also be the reason it doesn’t yield an undefeated or even a one-loss team.
Alabama will get better. So will LSU and Auburn. Even South Carolina should improve with time. It is, in fact, only Week 1 we’re talking about.
But first impressions do mean something, and the first look we had of the SEC revealed a pack of teams loaded with potential but saddled with problems.
Until we find out who is ready to take a step forward and lead, it will continue to be a wide open race.
Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M: The award for most obvious helmet sticker goes to the Aggies' sophomore quarterback, who dazzled in his first start. Hill broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school record with 511 yards passing. His 44 completions (on 60 attempts) broke another Manziel record and were the second most in SEC history. We'd give a special sticker to head coach Kevin Sumlin if he only wore a helmet, because Sumlin's offense might be the biggest story of the league's opening weekend.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another obvious sticker recipient, Gurley carried his Bulldogs to a huge statement win against Clemson. His 293 all-purpose yards broke Rodney Hampton's school single-game record. Gurley had 198 yards rushing with three touchdowns as well as a 100-yard kickoff-return TD that wrestled momentum back for UGA after Clemson had taken a 21-14 lead. As a precaution, Georgia limited his carries to 15, and Gurley still averaged 13.2 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with a full load.
Alabama running backs: With a new quarterback and a feisty opponent, the Crimson Tide needed every ounce of effort from their stellar backfield tandem. When the final whistle blew and Bama had edged West Virginia, there was little to distinguish between the results of junior T.J. Yeldon (126 yards rushing and two touchdowns) and sophomore Derrick Henry (113 yards and one touchdown). Sometimes Yeldon starts a drive, sometimes Henry does. It's anyone's guess which back finishes them.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: In his second career start for the Tigers, the senior and former juco transfer showed little drop-off as the replacement for star running back Tre Mason. Artis-Payne proved capable of being Auburn's bell cow with a total of 26 carries. After scoring a first-quarter touchdown, he helped the Tigers wear out the Razorbacks defense in the second half with 122 of his career-high 177 rushing yards.
Cody Core, WR, Ole Miss: There were plenty of worthy candidates for Week 1 helmet stickers, but Core deserves to bask in the limelight after dealing with the tragic loss of his mother in late July and then fighting his way up the depth chart in preseason camp to win a starting job. Core had four catches for 110 yards, including the Rebels' two biggest plays of the night -- a 30-yard TD grab in the first quarter to open the scoring and a decisive 76-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter.
For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.
Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.
With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.
Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.
Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.
Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.
Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.
Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.
But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.
Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.
We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.
Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.
How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.
Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.
Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.
Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.
Just keep repeating that to yourself, over and over, though not so loud that people think you’re strange.
I’ve spent the past few months working to condition and program myself to this thought. Maybe we should just call him LSU’s “first-year” running back.
Fournette doesn’t look, act -- or, most importantly -- run like a freshman. So let’s just move past the fact that he is one.
It’s a dangerous game, hyping those who have yet to gain a yard, throw a pass or make a tackle. It’s one that can make someone like me look quite foolish, causing hand-wringing from fans. (“He’s 18, HANEY!”)
But what happens when we’re right? What happens when Jameis Winston, as a first-year starter, wins the Heisman?
From all I’ve gathered, including a stop last week in Baton Rouge, we’re right on Fournette. You’ve seen the comparisons, from Michael Jordan’s determination to Adrian Peterson’s physique as a teenager.
“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” someone close to the program told me. “Never.”
College football’s 2014 prodigy will debut Saturday night in Houston, when LSU meets Wisconsin in a top-15 matchup at the Texans' stadium.
In addition to Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn are expected to be in the receivers rotation. Jamal Adams is a defensive back who isn’t getting enough buzz because of the offensive guys.
And, oh by the way, coach Les Miles has said QB Brandon Harris will play. He might even start.
“We just want to get the best players on the field,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me last week. “We don’t care what year they are. We tell them that.”
In addition to natural attrition, LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL draft the past two cycles. That precipitates need unlike anything we’ve ever seen, really.
“These kids have embraced that idea since day one in the recruiting process,” said Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN.com senior recruiting writer. “They knew they were good. They knew they were going to have to play early. And they didn’t back away from it one bit.”
If some or all of the freshmen hit, LSU will be a dark horse playoff contender. Three of the 20 coaches I polled this week had the Tigers in the four-team field.
“They can sneak up on you some years,” one of them told me. “That’s when they’ve won [titles]. There’s a lot of attention on Alabama and Auburn right now, and Les probably likes it that way.”
ESPN analyst and national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who covered Harris in the Under Armour game, said his arm is in the top three for the past decade.
“He’s a great kid with a high ceiling,” he said. “[He’s] a superior talent to [Anthony] Jennings, but he hasn’t played yet.”
Even with Fournette, expect veteran RBs Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee to get the first carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will roll Fournette in gracefully; those on staff agreed with my theory that the frosh would see between 10-15 planned carries. Don’t expect Peterson’s bruising running style as much as power mixed with elusiveness. Fournette would rather juke than bulldoze. And he’ll be more effective in the screen game.
But if he gets hot, the script could soon flip, with Hilliard and Magee serving as the complements. And that’s what I would expect, given the preface of his legend.
Fournette goes for 100-plus. A star is born.
Other breakout players to watch this week
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
2. There's some good and some not so good to take away from Ole Miss' win against Boise State on Thursday night. The good is the defense was stout. The not so good was that quarterback Bo Wallace wasn't as consistent as you'd like a senior quarterback and third-year starter to be, throwing three interceptions and four touchdowns. Those are two of the three things we learned from the Rebels 35-13 win over the Broncos. Robert Nkemdiche was certainly pleased with the defensive effort. Here's a look at some of the plays that changed the game for the Rebels.
3. Nick Saban hasn't publicly named Alabama's starting quarterback, but reading into his commentary during his radio show on Thursday night, but it certainly sounds like Blake Sims might take the first snap. Saban dropped a few hints into his thought process Thursday and one report claims that Sims will indeed start, citing a source. Saban lauded Sims' experience, something Jacob Coker lacks after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama just this summer. "Here's the thing everybody needs to understand that people don't understand," Saban said. "We have a guy playing quarterback who has been in the system for a long time and really has a really good understanding, very confident in what he's doing. I know he didn't play very well in the spring game and that's how a lot of people evaluate him. But he has done very well this fall and he did very well last spring and he has a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge."
More from around the SEC
- It's been a long time since Tennessee defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt played, 656 days to be exact. The junior expects to be emotional come Sunday night.
- Missouri has the country's longest active turnover streak.
- Florida is confident in what's ahead on offense behind new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
- Georgia will be missing Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley on Saturday. Will the Bulldogs be able to stretch the field without them?
- Getting new starting quarterback Patrick Towles into a comfort zone is an important task for coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown
KENNY FOOTBALL!!! #GigEm— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) August 29, 2014
Hill: I don't really like "Kenny Football." [crowd burst in laughter]— Gabe Bock (@GabeBock) August 29, 2014
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Maybe the whole Johnny Manziel phenomenon was a bit overblown.
That’s not to diss Johnny Football. Few players in the SEC have been more entertaining or transcendent. No, it’s more a validation that the other guy rocking the visor, the guy with the “good negotiator” and $5 million salary, knows what he’s doing.
Manziel, Case Keenum, Kenny Hill …
It obviously doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. His offenses are going to put up points, and lots of them.
The Aggies left little doubt Thursday night that they’re going to be just fine without Manziel -- especially if they can straighten out some bugs in the secondary -- by slicing through a helpless South Carolina defense in a 52-28 declawing of the No. 9-ranked Gamecocks before a stunned crowd of 82,847 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Quite frankly, there was a chip on our shoulder. Basically, nobody gave us a chance in this game,” Sumlin said. “What we did tonight kind of shows that we’re not a one-trick pony. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be, but we’re not going anywhere any time soon.”
It’s hard to know where to start when heaping praise on the Aggies, who had outgained the Gamecocks 142 yards to 1 at one point in the first quarter en route to scoring the most points against South Carolina on its home field in the Steve Spurrier era. The only other time an opponent had hung 50-plus on South Carolina in Williams-Brice with Spurrier on the sideline was when Tim Tebow came to town in 2007 on his Heisman Trophy march.
As fate would have it, Tebow was in the house Thursday as part of the SEC Network’s coverage and witnessed a Heisman Trophy-like performance.
Hill, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore, broke Manziel’s Texas A&M single-game passing record in his first start. He finished 44-of-60 for 511 yards and three touchdowns and was the essence of composure. He spread the ball around, got rid of the ball quickly and leaned on an impressive array of receivers.
And up front, it was a total mismatch. The Aggies’ offensive line manhandled the Gamecocks in rolling up a staggering 99 offensive plays and 680 yards of total offense – the most ever gained against any South Carolina team.
Hill joked that he was more nervous meeting with the media than he ever was on the field.
“I was more excited than nervous,” Hill said. “I was ready to go. I’ve been ready for this my whole life. Everybody was doubting us, and we were just ready to go and prove everybody wrong and that we could be good without Johnny.”
Hill wasn’t quite ready to take on a nickname yet, although he was asked about it.
“I don’t really like Kenny Football. That’s sort of played out,” he said to a round of laughter.
If you’re wondering, Manziel was 23-of-30 for 173 yards and no touchdown passes in his first career start in 2012, a 20-17 home loss to Florida.
“It’s the reason I came to Texas A&M, to replace Johnny,” said Hill, whose record night sent the Gamecocks to their first home loss after 18 consecutive wins.
The Texas A&M players were almost nonchalant about Hill’s performance. They didn’t necessarily see a record performance coming in his debut, but they knew following in Manziel’s footsteps wasn’t too big for him.
“He’s a pocket passer. He’s going to stay in the pocket,” said Texas A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy, who caught 14 passes for 137 yards. “If you stay on your routes, he’s going to put it right there.”
For Sumlin, this was especially sweet, although he did his best to downplay it afterward.
Spurrier, in vintage form, had taken a few shots at the Aggies’ nonconference schedule and how they rolled up a lot of their big numbers against smaller teams last season. He also quipped during the SEC Media Days that Sumlin had a good negotiator after Sumlin received a raise to $5 million annually when the University of Southern California showed interest in him.
The truth is that Spurrier and Sumlin are friends and even went to Ireland together to play golf two summers ago. Spurrier visited the Texas A&M locker room after the game. Even so, Sumlin made it clear that he wasn’t a big fan of some of the things said about his program during the offseason.
“I heard somebody say we made a bunch of yards against the little teams, but we also made a few yards tonight,” Sumlin cracked.
Granted, it was just one game, but he was genuinely peeved that anybody would suggest he and his staff would suddenly forget how to coach just because Manziel was gone. All offseason he was bombarded with questions about life without Manziel.
Sumlin’s public response was that the Aggies had recruited extremely well to a system they believed in. Privately, he couldn’t wait for the opportunity to fleece a few more SEC defenses with a system that has a way of bringing a defense to its knees no matter who’s playing quarterback.
On Thursday, the Gamecocks were on their heels from the Aggies’ first possession and never recovered. Just a thought: Maybe Jadeveon Clowney had a little bigger impact on that South Carolina defense than some people gave him credit for a year ago.
Either way, it’s clear that Texas A&M has recovered much better without its departed star than South Carolina has without its departed star.
Here’s another thought: The entire complexion of the Western Division race all of a sudden looks a little different, and we’re only a game into the season. If you’re going to beat the Aggies, you'd better be able to score.
The same goes for the Eastern Division race. South Carolina has two weeks to shake off this nightmare and find something that works on defense before Georgia visits.
In the meantime, looks like they’re not going to cancel the season in College Station after all.
Now we know why. In spite of losing so many stars, Sumlin's offense hasn't missed a beat. On Thursday night, Texas A&M's retooled offense outdueled Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, rolling up the Gamecocks 52-28 on the road.
1. Welcome to the show, Kenny Hill
The sophomore didn’t appear the least bit worried about living up to the legend of Manziel on Texas A&M’s opening drive. He calmly marched the Aggies down the field, spreading the ball around to his receivers. The best of his throws was this 22-yard, third-down strike over the middle to redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones that nearly went for a touchdown. Hill stayed calm in a stressful pocket and stepped into the throw beautifully. Tra Carson would ultimately go between the tackles for the 1-yard touchdown, giving Texas A&M the first points of the game. But Hill was the star of the drive, announcing himself to the college football world as a quarterback worthy of succeeding Johnny Football.
2. This Seals-Jones fella can play, can’t he?
South Carolina’s defensive backs were helpless to stop him. He was too big, too fast, way too athletic. Sound familiar? It should. In many ways, he’s Mike Evans 2.0. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman can’t be covered. On this 3-yard touchdown grab, he showed off his burst, getting into his break quickly. After getting a step on the defensive back, all he had to do was hold onto the football, which came on another perfect strike from Hill. On a side note, look at the pocket. The pressure from South Carolina’s defensive line was almost nonexistent.
3. Hill can run the read-option, too
With the game still in reach, South Carolina had the chance to stone Texas A&M on third-and-goal, but Hill was having none of it. Instead of picking apart the Gamecocks secondary with his arm, he used his feet and instincts to get the defense to commit before pitching the ball off to Carson, who had an easy path to the end zone. If Hill can keep executing the Aggies offense like this, the SEC West is going to be really, really interesting.
4. Spurrier had to roll the dice
By this point, South Carolina's defense had shown nothing. The defensive line wasn't getting any pressure. The secondary wasn’t making any plays, either. So why not try the onside kick? Down 17 points, it was worth a shot, and Landon Ard executed it almost perfectly. But Texas A&M secured the kick and promptly went 42 yards in 2:27 for another touchdown. South Carolina nearly got back in the game toward the end of the third quarter, but Dylan Thompson put too much air on a deep throw and watched helplessly as Armani Watts came away with the game-sealing interception. What could have been a 10-point game heading into the fourth quarter instead turned into a runaway rout.
How will it all shake out? This is our first shot at it, so take it easy on us. Like most of you, we will know a lot more about every team in the conference by the time the weekend is through.
But if there is one thing I'm confident in, it's that an SEC team will compete in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Sorry if I'm not buying that two will make it. Maybe next season, when all these inexperienced quarterbacks are a year more mature, but not now.
- CFB Playoff (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Alabama
- Cotton Bowl, Jan. 1: South Carolina
- Orange Bowl, Dec. 31: LSU
- Birmingham Bowl, Jan. 3: Vanderbilt
- TaxSlayer Bowl, Jan. 2: Florida
- Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Georgia
- Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Auburn
- Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Dec. 30: Missouri
- Belk Bowl, Dec. 30: Mississippi State
- AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl, Dec. 29: Texas A&M
- AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 29: Ole Miss
Numbers never lie
Let’s start with the most obvious statistic: the number two. Nick Marshall and Jameis Winston, the two quarterbacks in the BCS National Championship Game, were first-year starters last season. And Marshall, of course, was a defensive back a few years prior at Georgia and had the benefit of only three weeks on campus at Auburn before he won the starting job and took the field against Washington State.
Looking at last season alone, almost 20 similarly inexperienced quarterbacks were ranked in the top 50 nationally in QBR. Along with Winston and Marshall, you could find Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
Remember your history
There was a time, remember, when AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger weren’t the players we know them to be today. It wasn’t all that long ago that Johnny Football was a scruffy, too-short Johnny Manziel.
The departed class of quarterbacks had to start somewhere.
Mettenberger finally got his shot at LSU and led the Tigers to a 10-3 record.
McCarron took over and helped Alabama to a national championship.
Murray slid under center and slung the football for 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Do we need to recount Manziel’s freshman season? The Heisman Trophy says enough.
QBs aren’t young anymore
There’s a new truth about freshmen quarterbacks: By the time they’ve arrived at college, many of them aren’t the wide-eyed rookies we’ve come to expect.
The rise of spread offenses have asked more of high school quarterbacks. Summer 7-on-7 camps have refined their skills, too. And then there’s the trend toward personal quarterback coaches.
With so many tools at their disposal, quarterbacks have shortened the learning curve.
Ken Mastrole can relate. When he was a freshman at Maryland in the mid-1990s, he said he “had no one teaching me what I was doing wrong.” He had little knowledge of X’s and O’s. He didn’t go to camps and didn’t have a personal coach to mentor him.
Now Mastrole is doing that job himself, having worked with the likes of E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. As soon as he gets a new client, whether he’s in college or entering high school, he said he immediately starts working on their footwork and drops, watching film and analyzing their throwing motion.
“Plus, the mental and vision training I incorporate speeds up their decision-making process,” he added. “I have QBs now more than ever that are competing to start as freshmen and sophomores, and it gives them three-plus years of experience which makes them even more ready for college."
He continued: “My former teammate is now a high school offensive coordinator and is running the Air Raid offense. I sit in his meetings and am blown away on how advanced he is. He has his guys mentally ready when they sign a letter of intent.”
Let the vet have his shot
Coaches, at the end of the day, will go with their gut. And more often than not that means going with what they know -- at least to begin with.
At Alabama, don’t be surprised if Blake Sims gets the starting nod against West Virginia. The fifth-year senior has earned his shot, while Jake Coker, who transferred from FSU this summer, is still getting his bearings.
At LSU, Anthony Jennings could be the first quarterback to trot on the field against Wisconsin. The sophomore saw the field nine times last year, starting in a win at the Outback Bowl, while Brandon Harris has yet to attempt a single pass in college.
But talent will always win out. If Sims can’t get the job done, Coker will step in. If Jennings struggles, Harris will take over. The two newbies may not be totally comfortable with their respective offenses yet, but you can teach that. You’d rather have the best guy learning on the fly than the best guy riding the bench.
You would rather be sitting here today with a proven guy, but also you know that there's going to be good players that emerge," said Freeze. "I'm glad we're one that has [a veteran QB], but I fully expect that there will be two or three no one's talking about right now that come out and play and perform really well."
Not all South Carolina fans were so welcoming.
As evidenced by reports via social media, A&M's yell practice became rather eventful and testy at times as South Carolina fans came to shout the Aggies down. The Aggies hold Midnight Yell at Kyle Field before home games, and for road games they choose a spot in or near the opponent's hometown. In this case, it happened to be roughly a couple miles from Williams-Brice Stadium.
Here's video from the scene last night, via TheState.com:
And here are a few tweets from last night's scene:
One TAMU fan says he's never seen opposition like this. That includes a Yell Practice at the capitol before the Texas game.— David Cloninger (@DCTheState) August 28, 2014
12:00 PM ET Florida Atlantic 2 Alabama 12:00 PM ET 24 Missouri Toledo 12:00 PM ET Arkansas State Tennessee 2:00 PM ET UAB Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET Ohio Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan Florida 4:00 PM ET Nicholls State Arkansas 4:30 PM ET 15 Ole Miss Vanderbilt 7:00 PM ET East Carolina 21 South Carolina 7:00 PM ET San Jose State 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET Sam Houston State 12 LSU 7:30 PM ET Lamar 9 Texas A&M