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Last week I detailed the importance of Thursday’s Belk College Kickoff Game for both North and South Carolina – two teams desperate for a turn-around season. [Read the #UNCvsSC Preview Here] So with just two days before kickoff in Charlotte, let’s take a closer look at each aspect of the game, who has the advantage, and why.
One offense comes into Week 1 with some serious question marks, while the other returns all but one player from last year’s team. The question for South Carolina is how they are going fill big time holes at pivotal positions, starting with quarterback. The graduation of Dylan Thompson (who set the single-season school record for passing yards in 2014) leaves big shoes to be filled under center. Steve Spurrier officially named redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch the starter last week, ending a four-way competition where Mitch seemed to always be the favorite. Although the former four-star recruit from Raleigh has just two career completions for 19 yards, All-SEC receiver Pharoh Cooper and an unproven Tar Heel defense should help ease Mitch into the Gamecock offense. South Carolina will also have to replace running back Mike Davis, and two starters on a relatively inexperienced offensive line. Senior right tackle Brandon Shell is the most experienced up front, but his 36 career starts are twice as many as anyone else on the team.
The only question mark the Tar Heels have coming into Charlotte is whether their offense can reach its full potential. Senior quarterback Marquise Williams leads a loaded UNC offense that lost only tight end Jack Tabb to graduation and is being hyped as possibly the best offense in the ACC.
The Tar Heels offensive line is the biggest concern, even though they are by far the most experienced line in the ACC, returning a total of nine players who started at some point last season. The 2014 O-line struggled to protect Williams, who was forced to scramble far too often, and they failed to create consistent holes for UNC’s running backs. Early indications out of fall camp are pointing to a much-improved unit up front for the Heels. It won’t take long Thursday night to see if they can handle an SEC defense, making it an early indicator for the rest of the season.
Advantage: Tar Heels
Both defenses are looking to erase what I’d call nightmare-ish memories from last season. South Carolina finished 92nd in total defenses among FBS schools, while the Tar Heels defense finished 117th and was one of the worst defenses in school history.
UNC senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer and junior cornerback Brain Walker are notable returning starters, but the big storyline here is former national champion Auburn head coach Gene Chizik taking over as defensive coordinator.
Chizik is definitely a big-time hire for the Tar Heels, but it’ll take something short of a miracle to turn around a defense that has so much to improve on. His boys better be in shape too, as the lightning quick UNC offense may lead to short breathers on the sideline.
The Gamecocks will also look to a new defensive coordinator to right the ship. Spurrier hired a familiar face in Jon Hoke, who held the same position under Spurrier at Florida from 1999-2001 and has 13 years of experience as an NFL defensive backs coach. The secondary returns a multitude of familiar faces in new positions, but the biggest point of improvement for the Gamecocks is getting consistent pressure from their defensive line. In 2014 the Gamecocks ranked 118th in sacks and 121st in tackles for a loss. An experienced UNC offensive line coupled with a run-friendly quarterback in Williams will prove to be a good early test for the Gamecock defense.
The special teams battle is an interesting one, with the Tar Heels having the upper hand in the return game and the Gamecocks having a clear advantage at kicker. UNC’s Ryan Switzer spent much of his off-season watching film on his 2014 punt returns, taking notice of when he was pushing to make the big returns that helped him tie the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns in 2013. Junior Nick Weiler gets the nod at kicker, a position that has plagued the Tar Heels since the days of Connor and Casey Barth. Weiler’s career long is just 23 yards – something that could definitely be a deciding factor on fourth down’s outside of the red zone.
South Carolina doesn’t have a Switzer-like return weapon, but junior kicker Elliot Fry is pretty reliable and has a big leg, hitting 72% (18/25) of his field goals last season, with a long of 47 yards. Fry was also a perfect 51/51 on extra point attempts. The return game gets a lot more publicity, but the chances of this game being decided by a field goal are way higher than that of the game going one way or the other because of a big return.
Not much to say on this one. Sure, Larry Fedora has done a decent job in progressing the UNC football program, appearing in two bowl games in three seasons and bringing in some solid recruiting classes.
But the guy on the other sideline is Steve Spurrier – “The Ole Ball Coach”. 26 seasons, 21 bowl games, 226 wins and a consensus national championship…. ‘nuff said.
With the game being played in Charlotte, some may be led to believe that the Tar Heels would hold a home crowd advantage. But geographically, South Carolina has the upper hand. Bank of America Stadium is 142 miles from Chapel Hill, compared to just 91 miles from Columbia. If this were a basketball game, then yes, you’d certainly give UNC the home crowd, but Gamecock fans travel well. Likewise, UNC fans and players have had this game circled on their calendars for a long time, so there will be plenty of Carolina blue in the stands. Just under 74,000 seats on a Thursday night means there will be plenty of room for both Carolinas.
If this game is close in the fourth quarter, leadership and experience may end up proving to be the most important aspect of all. It’ll be a bowl-like atmosphere inside Bank of America Stadium, with plenty of first game and border rivalry emotions flying all over the field. The Gamecocks have a clear-cut leadership advantage in terms of coaching, but their on-field leaders aren’t as obvious. Here’s something to keep in mind – South Carolina was the only school to send a kicker to SEC Media days, and the only school that didn’t send a single senior. That could mean absolutely nothing, or could be an indicator that Spurrier is still looking for his locker room and on-field leaders.
On the contrary, UNC is led by seniors at a number of positions on both sides of the ball. The question for the Tar Heels will be if the game comes down to the wire, will they be able to stay composed and learn from past mistakes, or revert to their old ways.
Advantage: Tar Heels
There are plenty of uncertainties for both teams going into Thursday night, but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s a lot of points being scored. A timely defensive stop or big turnover late could prove to be the deciding factor.