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Texas A&M at South Carolina
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College football is back and the Thursday night schedule opens up with several big games. The SEC headlines the opening night slate with a matchup of two prominent programs as Texas A&M visits South Carolina. Mississippi and Vanderbilt are also in action for the SEC in later matchups on Thursday’s six-game slate.

Match-up: Texas A&M Aggies at South Carolina Gamecocks
Venue: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina (grass)
Date: Thursday, August 28, 2014
Time/TV: 6:00 PM ET – SEC Network
Line: South Carolina -10.5, Over/Under 58
Last Meeting: None

The impact of Jonny Manziel at Texas A&M has been huge and it will be a great challenge for the Aggies to maintain its position among the elite teams in the SEC. While the Aggies did not win a championship in either of the past two seasons, Texas A&M went 20-6 with two bowl wins to wipe away mostly mediocre results in the past two decades. Most expected Texas A&M to struggle in the move to the SEC, but so far it has been a great success and the university is reaping the rewards in many ways, including another great recruiting class for Kevin Sumlin.

While Texas A&M will play a soft non-conference schedule in 2014, they draw one of the tougher overall schedules in the conference. There are no easy outs in the West division and the draw from the East features last year’s top two teams, with Missouri in November and this challenging opening game with South Carolina. The Aggies also have daunting travel with five of the first eight games of the season away from home and in addition to this visit to Columbia, the Aggies are playing on the road against both Alabama and Auburn this season.

Sophomore Kenny Hill has been named the starter for Texas A&M, beating out freshman Kyle Allen who many had projected to win the job. Hill did see the field last season, completing 16 passes while also rushing for 37 yards. He fits the bill as a dual-threat player that has some of the mobility that was so valuable for Manziel, and he is not much bigger than Manziel at just 6’1”.

Just as pressing as the loss at quarterback is, the loss of NFL draft pick Mike Evans who had monster numbers for the Aggies last season with nearly 1,400 receiving yards, while importantly bailing Manziel out on some of his wild scrambles. The Aggies have four receivers on the roster that had receptions last season, but the offense is very young at the skill positions. Even with the loss of several higher profile offensive linemen in recent years, the Aggies will still have an experienced unit that could be one of the best lines in the SEC, which should help the transition considerably.

While Manziel was the most talked about player at the NFL draft this spring, the #1 pick in the draft was South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. While Clowney did not have huge statistics last season, he certainly took a lot of attention from opposing teams. South Carolina actually took a substantial step back defensively in its 2013 statistics compared with 2012, though it marked a third consecutive season that South Carolina has finished 11-2 with a bowl win over a Big Ten team under Steve Spurrier, now in his 10th season with the program. It will be interesting to see if South Carolina can maintain its strong defensive reputation with a lot of new players in key spots this season.

South Carolina also lost its starting quarterback from last season in Connor Shaw, who ironically is with Manziel on the Cleveland Browns roster, at least for the time being. Shaw had a great college career also playing as a dual-threat quarterback though injuries kept him from having as consistent success. Missing some time has allowed Dylan Thompson, now a senior in the starting role to gain plenty of experience. Thompson threw for 783 yards last season including starting two games and he also started a game in the 2012 season. Thompson is much more of a pocket passer than Shaw so the Gamecocks will lean on the running backs this season.

Mike Davis is the lead running back for South Carolina and he averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season en route to a nearly 1,200 yard season. Davis had an injury scare earlier this month and has missed some practice with a rib injury, but he is expected to be a full participant for the opener. It is a position where South Carolina has some depth so it will be a committee approach for most of the season and especially in the opener as Texas A&M allowed 222 yards per game on the ground last season.

The Aggies do have a lot of experience on defense, including most of the key players on the defensive line returning to action, but statistically Texas A&M was the worst rush defense in the SEC season in 2013. Expect the Aggies to attempt to bottle up the run in this game and force Thompson to make some throws, but the Gamecocks also possess a veteran receiving corps that lost only one key player from last season’s rotation.

South Carolina is undefeated at home the past two seasons with consecutive 7-0 campaigns in Columbia, but there have been a few close calls with three wins by seven or fewer points in that span, all coming against SEC opponents. Texas A&M is actually 7-2 on the road under Sumlin and the most famous win for the program in this era came in a pretty tough venue in Tuscaloosa. This will be the biggest underdog spread for the Aggies since that 29-24 win over Alabama in 2012. The Aggies were twice a road underdog last season but they came up short in both instances.

Line Movement: The line opened at -11 before dropping to 10 and climbing back to 10.5 at most outlets. The total has climbed from 57 to 58.

Last Meeting: This is the first ever meeting between Texas A&M and South Carolina

Texas A&M Historical Trends: This program has not performed well away from home going just 66-93-3 ATS in road games since 1980 and the more recent numbers are no better with a 25-45-1 ATS record since 1999. Texas A&M is just 2-6 the last three years as an underdog and 25-41-1 ATS as an underdog going back to 2000. Texas A&M is 8-18 ATS as a road underdog of 10 or more points going back to 1982.

South Carolina Historical Trends: South Carolina is 32-3 S/U and 21-13 ATS at home since 2009. Under Spurrier South Carolina is 8-1 S/U but just 5-4 ATS in home openers, winning each of the last seven home openers S/U with covers in five of the last six. Under Spurrier, South Carolina is 25-17-2 ATS as a home favorite, losing outright just three times in those 44 games.

There are five additional games on the Thursday night opening slate – here is a quick look at two of the other prominent games:

Mississippi vs. Boise State (ESPN)
Line: Mississippi -10, Over/Under 54

This game will be played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, one of two games this weekend in the building as Alabama and West Virginia will face off Saturday in Atlanta. The Broncos have played in a number of big national openers against high profile teams, featuring mixed results including an ugly loss last season against Washington. After eight impressive seasons in Boise, Chris Petersen left for the Washington opening as a new era opens. Last season, Boise State fell to 8-5 for its worst season in over a decade but that was incredibly inexperienced team. This year’s team should be better as one of the favorites in the Mountain West though this is a tough opening draw for Bryan Harsin, who takes over after just one season at Arkansas State. After a 2-10 season in 2011, Hugh Freeze has led two successful seasons for the Rebels with bowl wins. The next step is competing for a SEC title and there is a lot of experience on this team, even though the Rebels are often forgotten in the loaded SEC West. With veteran QB and nine starters back on a very talented defense, Ole Miss could be a sleeper in the West division and the SEC as a whole. Both teams have great recent records in neutral site games with Mississippi going 17-5-1 ATS since 1985 and Boise State going 10-3 ATS since 2000.

Rutgers vs. Washington State (FOX1)
Line: Washington State -8, Over/Under 61

This game is a neutral site game in Seattle at CenturyLink Field. In the opening game last season on the road, Washington State out-gained Auburn in a tough 31-24 loss. Little did anyone know that Auburn would wind up playing for a national championship at the end of the season. While there were several ugly losses along the way, Washington State wound up back in the postseason in just the second season for Mike Leach in Pullman, though the season ended with a stunning bowl loss.

The Cougars allowed 458 yards per game last season, but the offense returns quarterback Connor Halliday and nearly the entire receiving corps as this will again be a very productive offensive team. Washington State has lost by combined score of 150-64 in the last three Seattle games, but there will be much more of a home-field edge this time around given the long travel for Rutgers.

Rutgers is pegged to be one of the bottom teams in its first season in the Big Ten, but the schedule is a huge factor in the lack of optimism. This is an experienced team and Kyle Flood has done a nice job in two seasons as Rutgers has made back-to-back bowl trips, exceeding most expectations. The strength of the Knights has been stopping the run in recent seasons and that won’t be much of an issue in this matchup, but Rutgers does have veteran lines that should allow the team to compete in this game if they can cash in on offensive opportunities to keep up with the high scoring Cougars. Rutgers has been a great team to back as an underdog in the last decade, going 46-22-2 ATS when getting points since 2002. Washington State is just 17-24 ATS as a favorite since 2003 and the Cougars are just 4-11 ATS in neutral site games since 2001.

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