When North Carolina has the ball
Expectations are high for the offense and rightfully so, given the Tar Heels return 10 starters and 99.5 percent of their total yards from a season ago. Fifth-year senior quarterback Marquise Williams is an ACC Player of the Year candidate and UNC has no shortage of capable skill players, including running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan and receivers Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer.
The offensive line is back nearly intact, as well. The questions are whether UNC can find a productive running game – it ranked 81st nationally last season – and whether the line, which had its share of injury woes in the preseason, can play to its potential. Williams, who was prone to slow starts last season, needs to be more consistent, as well.
The potential is there for a huge year, but, remember, coach Larry Fedora said his offense was “average” last season, and it was worse than that in ugly season-ending losses against N.C. State and Rutgers. Are the problems that hindered UNC in those games things of the past?
Defensively, South Carolina endured the same kind of misery last season, on a somewhat smaller scale, as UNC. The Gamecocks return eight starters, including middle linebacker Skai Moore, who has led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Three of the four starters on the line are back too.
South Carolina finished last season with just 14 sacks, and creating more pressure is a priority for co-defensive coordinators Lorenzo Ward and Jon Hoke, who is a new addition to the staff.
When South Carolina has the ball
The Gamecocks under Steve Spurrier haven’t exactly been reminiscent of Spurrier’s Fun ‘N Gun Florida teams, but they have still have their moments. Like two years ago, when they scored on a 65-yard pass on their third offensive play during a season-opening victory against the Tar Heels.
Junior receiver Pharoh Cooper of Havelock High represents the Gamecocks’ biggest big-play threat. He set the school record last season for receiving yards in a single game (233) and he finished with 1,136 receiving yards – third most in school history.
Outside of Cooper, the rest of the receiving corps has a combined eight college receptions. The quarterback is also new. Connor Mitch, who threw for 12,000 yards in high school at Raleigh Wakefield, will make his first college start.
South Carolina returns four starters, including Cooper and left tackle Brandon Shell, a three-year starter on the line. UNC’s defense, meanwhile, is a giant question mark.
After one of the worst defensive seasons in school history, UNC hired Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator. He brought a new 4-3 base scheme, but many of the players, including seven starters, are still the same. No one knows what kind of turnaround to expect, or even what kind of improvement is realistic, after last season.
EDGE: South Carolina
If it’s a close game late in the fourth quarter – the kind that could be decided by a field goal – South Carolina figures to have a significant advantage. Elliott Fry, the Gamecocks’ placekicker, made 18-of-25 field goal attempts last season, including a long of 47 yards. The Tar Heels didn’t make a field goal longer than 30 yards last season.
That was a major problem for UNC, which made six field goals total last season. Nick Weiler, whose had five, won the placekicking job during the preseason. Weiler, at least, has had plenty of success when it comes to kickoffs.
Cooper is South Carolina’s punt returner, and while he’s a big play waiting to happen, he hasn’t had much success as a returner. UNC’s Switzer, a junior, will attempt to rediscover the form of the second half of his freshman season, when he returned five punts for touchdowns.
Though Switzer can change a game in an instant with a punt return, the Gamecocks appear in better shape simply because they have a proven placekicker.
EDGE: South Carolina
All the cliches apply here for both teams: this is important because it’s a season-opener, a game in prime time on national TV against a rival from a neighboring state. All that said, UNC needs it more.
The end of last season couldn’t have gone much worse for UNC, which ended a 6-7 season with embarrassing, blowout losses against N.C. State and Rutgers – defeats that had players describing chemistry that had turned toxic.
Fedora had to reunite his team in the offseason but first he had to hire a new defensive coordinator. In hiring Chizik, Fedora made arguably the best move he could have. A win in Charlotte against an SEC team could do wonders for Fedora’s program.
At the least, it would be a sign UNC is headed in the right direction. After a 7-6 finish, South Carolina has a lot to play for too, and Spurrier’s disdain for UNC – he coached at Duke, don’t forget – can’t be discounted.
South Carolina 34, UNC 31
Kickoff: 6:01 p.m., Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Radio: 106.1 (Raleigh); 99.3 (Charlotte)
Key numbers (from last season)
PPG: UNC 33.2; South Carolina 32.6
PPG allowed: UNC 39; South Carolina 30.4
Yards per play: UNC 5.56; South Carolina 6.09
Yards per play allowed: UNC 6.53; South Carolina; 6.22