As we await the kickoff of the college football season, here's a preview of the North Carolina vs. South Carolina border rivalry, which will be played tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
Tar Heels' Advantage
Providing North Carolina’s offensive line can supply enough protection, Bryn Renner and his bevy of receiving targets should pick right up where they left off last season – a 305-yard, five-touchdown performance against Maryland in the season finale. South Carolina’s defense ranks among the best in the country, but its back seven lost four starters from last season. The biggest question mark in South Carolina’s defense lies at linebacker, so look for tight end Eric Ebron and slot receivers Kendrick Singleton and Ryan Switzer to be prime targets in the early going.
South Carolina’s defensive line just might be the best in the country, and it’s not all because of Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks are loaded up front with J.T. Surratt and Kelcy Quarles at defensive tackle, along with defensive end Chaz Sutton opposite of Clowney. The four tallied 22 combined sacks last season to key South Carolina’s top-10 defense. That unit has the ability to expose the unproven links along UNC’s offensive line. If that happens, Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels won’t have the chance to open up the offense.
Tar Heels' Concern
North Carolina faces a pretty tall task to leave this game with a victory – the Tar Heels have to go on the road to a top-10 team on the opening Thursday night. Williams-Brice Stadium will likely be the loudest environment UNC’s players have ever experienced. It’s supremely important for UNC to stop big plays early that would continue to feed the crowd – that could be either a long touchdown or allowing Clowney to get loose. The Tar Heels have no room for first-game jitters.
Coach Steve Spurrier has built a worthy reputation as one of the most brilliant offensive minds in college football. But, that reputation has evaded him a bit at South Carolina, where dominant defenses have led to the rise of the program. The Gamecocks will use two quarterbacks, but neither is among the top tier of SEC signal-callers. South Carolina has to replace superstar running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Ace Sanders from an offense that was ninth-best in the SEC last year. Even more to the Gamecocks' disadvantage, star tight end Rory Anderson will miss the contest with injury, and preseason All-SEC wide receiver Bruce Ellington is questionable with a hamstring injury.
Player to Watch: Jadeveon Clowney
South Carolina boasts the SEC’s best defense and one of the best in the country, and that begins and ends with superstar defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The junior was the No. 1 recruit in his class three years ago, and he’s lived up to that billing during his two years with the Gamecocks.
Clowney is an athletic freak who can use speed or power to beat any offensive lineman in the country. All-ACC and All-American candidate left tackle James Hurst will draw the assignment on Clowney, but even he enters the matchup as a severe underdog. Clowney’s unique athletic ability allows him to line up from a variety of positions, too, so blocking him will be a joint task for the entire North Carolina offensive line.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said of facing the rare defensive Heisman candidate. “The guy is a great player. The more you watch film on him you see it, and I’m well beyond the play against Michigan.”
Clowney was a unanimous All-American selection last year after setting school records with 23.5 tackles for losses and 13 sacks. Against Clemson, who runs a similar spread offense as UNC, Clowney exploded for a 4.5-sack effort. As strong as his pass-rushing is, he’s just as good at chasing the ball-carrier downfield and preventing big plays.
Five more to keep an eye on
Shaw gets the start in South Carolina’s dual-quarterback scheme. The senior’s 20 starts speak to his experience, and he’s posted a 17-3 record in that time. Shaw is an accurate passer who ranks high on the Gamecocks’ all-time passing lists, but he’ll do most of his damage with his legs.
Despite battling a hamstring injury throughout most of fall camp, Ellington returns to the Gamecocks as a first-team All-SEC receiver. He’s a true big-play threat who caught 40 balls for 600 yards last season. He provides a quick test for UNC’s secondary that has promised a bounce-back season.
The 6-4, 298-pound Quarles is a load in the middle of South Carolina’s defense. He tallied 3.5 sacks and eight tackles for losses last year and enters 2013 as an All-SEC candidate. Quarles demands respect from interior linemen, leaving Clowney and others more room to operate.
Sutton gets the start at defensive end after spending the last two seasons as a back-up to Clowney and Devin Taylor. He still registered five sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses last year in reserve minutes. He gets the matchup against UNC’s questionable right tackles.
Hampton, a junior, returns to the South Carolina defense to anchor a back-seven that enters the year with some uncertainties. Hampton provides experience and consistency as a shutdown cornerback on the outside. He’ll make things difficult for Quinshad Davis all night.