Like an engorged serpent, the start of the NCAA Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision keeps growing year after year. Cal vs. Hawaii was merely an appetizer before an entire hog is brought before the great beast, apple and all. From Thursday to Monday there will be college football in fits, spurts and droves. You will watch. You will submit. When all is reduced to ash and silence you will mean nothing, and the Big 12 still will not have solved their expansion problem.
South Carolina @ Vanderbilt - 8 p.m. ET - ESPN
While it is certainly worthwhile to pick at the draftees playing on Saturday onward (which will include some very fun matchups), it would be a mistake to forget Thursday. There are no marquee games, but there is the eternal domain of South Carolina kicking off the season. This is no joke; going back to 2008, the Gamecocks have started their season on a Thursday in seven out of eight years. There is no logical reason for this; one can only assume the American deep state has thrown their weight behind propping up South Carolina football (source: tigernet.com).
However, there’s little on the Gamecocks this year to talk about. There’s not much in the way of prospects or outstanding talent. Legendary head coach Steve Spurrier has retired to pee on more golf courses, and to fill his shoes South Carolina hired... Oh christ, really, Will Muschamp?
On the other hand, their opponent, Vanderbilt, has a few players worth watching, which makes this a rarefied moment in the overall timeline of Commodore football. Just to be clear, Vanderbilt does not play any sort of football that one can call compelling and they sure as hell can’t score a handful of points to save their lives, but their defense is exceptional.
Case in point: outside linebacker Zach Cunningham. Highly touted out of high school, Cunningham was built more like a safety until he put on a good 30 pounds of muscle. He excels in pass coverage, with the awareness and speed necessary to make plays, disrupts passing lanes and defends the zone. His agility lets him get past blocks and disrupt the run wherever possible.
Where he falls short is in his tackling technique. Cunningham misses quite a few tackles (once every 9.5 attempts or so) which can be a pretty big mark but is something many college linebackers work on. Focus on this for watching Cunningham’s development in the 2016 season.
Appalachian State @ #9 Tennessee - 7:30 p.m. ET - SEC Network
Nothing bad has ever happened to a top ten team opening their season playing App State.
Like their in-state brethren at Vanderbilt, Tennessee has a handful of outstanding defensive talents. None stand out more than defensive end Derek Barnett, who might be the second best edge rusher in the nation behind Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. Barnett’s statistics speak for themselves; he creates a high number of tackles-for-loss and a good deal of sacks to boot. He gets around the edge quickly and with great power and just keeps on disrupting whatever play is going on in the backfield.
Vols cornerback Cameron Sutton is also worth keeping an eye on in this game. The 2015 season saw opponents ignoring the side of the field where Sutton was lined up, and for good reason. While he may be a little undersized for the cornerback position, his awareness on routes is superb. Sutton was being courted to go in the 2016 draft and was expected to go around the third round, but with another year of development under his belt he could be looking at the top two rounds in 2017.
Another name to keep an eye on: Appalachian State’s senior-laden defense is no slouch either, and inside linebacker John Law not only has a fantastic name but could be a late-round name that pops up sometime next year.