Sometime after kickoff last night, the college football fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief. Football is back. And what better way to start the season than with two of the SEC elites pounding it out on a network no one has access to? No one knew what to expect from the new-look Texas A&M Aggies. Without Johnny Football, many expected them to take several strides in reverse. Coming off one of its best seasons in school history, South Carolina seemed poised to fight for the SEC East crown this season, and if the ball bounced just right might have even have found itself in the College Football Playoff. That was, until, it hit a Hill. A Hill big enough that we over in the Big 12 took notice.
I read recently there was no possible way Kenny Hill could replace Manziel’s production no matter how well he played. Part of me believes Hill read the comment and took up the challenge. After 60 minutes of play, Hill had thrown for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 52-28 win and a dominate performance against what was thought to be one of the SEC’s best defenses. Not only did he light up South Carolina’s secondary, but he also did it on the road, something former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could only dream of doing…at home…let alone on the road.
When a talented Clemson team came into Columbia last season with its high octane offense, it left humbled. Clemson managed only 17 points, the second fewest of the season. In 2012, South Carolina came into Death Valley and held the Sammy Watkins-less Tigers to their fewest points that season. Boyd never beat South Carolina. In four years, South Carolina held the Tigers to 54 total points. In those four years, Clemson scored 50 or more points on 11 occasions. During the same span, South Carolina allowed more than 50 points on one other occasion: to Cam Newton and the eventual national champions, Auburn.
It makes what sophomore Kenny Hill did that much more impressive. Instead of falling behind the game, the Aggies appear to actually have taken a step up at the quarterback level. Now let me first say Hill cannot replace Manziel’s athleticism and ability to extend plays in such dramatic fashion. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent (twice if you count Vince Young’s playmaking ability). Of course, given how Hill has taken up challenges, it wouldn’t surprise me if he next took up the mantle of playmaking super sophomore dawning mind-numbing nicknames from far and wide. He’s already been deemed Kenny Football, which I think we can all agree shouldn’t stick.
Let’s hold on just one moment, though. While Hill stole the show, the defense also played superb. South Carolina has never been an offensive juggernaut, but it is typically fairly sound. A&M surrendered 366 yards through the air as South Carolina played from behind, but allowed only 67 yards on the ground on 22 carries. The running game has been Steve Spurrier’s bread and butter, sometimes punishing his running backs (Marcus Lattimore, anyone?) as much as the opposing defense. In this game, however, star running back Mike Davis managed only 15 yards on six carries. The Aggie defense played well enough for them to run 35 more offensive plays than South Carolina.
Don’t let this game fool you, either. The SEC East is devoid of any clear favorite, and South Carolina may still be the best team in the division. Vanderbilt’s surprising 37-7 to Temple at home last night, the same Temple that went 2-10 in 2013, cast a disfiguring shadow on the bottom of the division. Tennessee and Kentucky aren’t expected to challenge for the division title this season, nor is Missouri. Only Florida or Georgia pose legitimate threats to South Carolina’s claim.
Texas A&M was hitting on all cylinders yesterday evening en route to what might amount to one of the biggest wins of the year for any team. Trey Williams, whose numbers were actually hurt by three carries to end the game, emerged as a go-to playmaker in the backfield opposite Brandon Williams, and several receivers stepped up in a big way. The defense has taken tremendous leaps forward since last year’s hole-filled secondary allowed more yards than seemingly possible. The Aggies were unlucky enough to draw both Alabama and Auburn on the road (but do get LSU at home to close out the season), but if the level of play continues to be there, the SEC West just got a lot more exciting and much more difficult to predict.