South Carolina played its first football game almost 122 years ago. Texas A&M took the field for the first time 120 years ago. That makes it hard for much to be new, but the game between the Gamecocks and the Aggies this evening will be new in practically every way.
It is the beginning of the new, annual rivalry between South Carolina and Texas A&M -- and the first meeting between the two schools. We got a reminder of what could add some heat to a contrived pairing when A&M held its Midnight Yell celebration outside the South Carolina State House overnight, only to reportedly be greeted by swarms of Gamecock fans. The residents of both states are not fond of backing down, and while we can hope things never get ugly, the Wednesday night showdown also caused some Twitter sniping -- some of it in good fun, some of it perhaps not so much.
It's also the first live football game on the SEC Network, the most ambitious part of the conference's new business plan and one of the reasons that the Aggies were invited to join the league to begin with. That a high-profile game between a team with a large market and one of the conference's most successful programs over the last three years is being aired on the network shows how serious the SEC and ESPN are about making it work.
Tonight's game also marks a sort of new era for both teams. South Carolina hopes to keep the momentum from going 42-11 over the last four seasons, but they'll try to do so without Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney or Kelcy Quarles -- and even players like Bruce Ellington and Victor Hampton. The Gamecocks have a chance to break through this year and reach their second SEC Championship Game -- and maybe more -- but only if a mixture of veterans and newcomers like Dylan Thompson, Mike Davis and Shaq Roland take them there. This game is the first test for the newest edition of South Carolina football.
And everyone knows, of course, that Texas A&M is entering the post-Johnny Manziel era. And that's not to mention the loss of players like Mike Evans and Jake Matthews from last year's team. Kevin Sumlin and Co. will be successful without Manziel, but they will likely struggle in 2014, at least during the early part of the season, and the showdown with a Top 10 team should give us an idea of how much.
There are two match-ups in particular that are worth watching. The first is Mike Davis versus the Texas A&M rushing defense, which ranked dead last in the SEC last year (by 15 yards a game). South Carolina was average running the ball last year, but Davis is a great back who will challenge the Aggies defense. The other key battle will be the one between the Gamecocks' dramatically overhauled defensive line and partially reconstructed secondary on the one hand and Kenny Hill on the other. Texas A&M's offense is built to cause problems for any pass defense, but if Hill and his receivers wreak havoc this evening, South Carolina's defense might be in more trouble than we think.
For all the new in this game, though, there are a couple of old things that aren't likely to change. First, Steve Spurrier doesn't lose season openers, when he's had all summer to draw up a couple of special ball plays to try out against his opponent. Spurrier has lost the first game of the year once -- his final year at Duke, against (coincidentally enough) South Carolina. And the Gamecocks don't lose at home, or at least they haven't since October 2011. Those streaks will keep going, but what we find out in getting to the result might be as interesting as the final score.
South Carolina 32, Texas A&M 20