The college football season is long and strenuous, with plenty of ups and downs. So while Week 1 might be the most anticipated week of the season, with players and fans chomping at the bit to see their teams on the field and put the first tally in the win column, it’s rare that the first game of the year defines a team’s season. But that’s exactly the situation the North Carolina Tar Heels and South Carolina Gamecocks may find themselves in when they face off in Charlotte on September 3 for the Belk College Kickoff Game.
Both teams desperately need a big win on a national stage, but the respective reasons couldn’t be more different.
South Carolina Gamecocks
In recent years, South Carolina has established themselves as an SEC and National Title contender – winning the Sec East in 2010 and racking up 33 wins from 2011 to 2013, including bowl game wins and a top 10 final ranking in all three seasons. But the Gamecocks struggled in 2014, needing a three-point win over Miami in the Independence Bowl to avoid the first sub .500 season in the Spurrier era.
It's no secret that Gamecock fans are a proud and confident bunch, so you know they'll be itching to get back to being SEC and national title contenders. But a loss to North Carolina (viewed by most as an average, at best, football program) on national TV would be something that USC faithful would have a very, very tough time getting over. Remember last year, when Texas A&M came into Columbia and exposed the USC defense to the tune of a 52-28 loss that set the tone for a total defense that finished 92nd in the country.
Likewise, handling the Tar Heels and putting a thumping on them in front of that same national audience would be a solid indicator that the Gamecocks are back to contender form – not to mention continuing to prove their football dominance over their Carolina neighbors to the North.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina needs a Week 1 win for almost the complete opposite reasons. For the Tar Heels, it’s been seven years of “same stuff, different year”. Spring and summer talk and hype of “another top 25 recruiting class”, “tons of offensive fire power and talent”, and "is this the year UNC finally gets over the hump and contends?" have all been answered by a consistent string of 8-5 or 7-6 seasons ending in a mediocre bowl game.
The biggest reason for the Tar Heels’ inability to break out as consistent ACC contenders is obvious: defense. South Carolina’s defense was bad last year – UNC’s was atrocious, ranking 117th out of 125 teams in total defense. The 6-7 Tar Heels were lit up for 40, 43, 47, 50 (twice) and 70 points last year, losing all but one of those games. One would imagine that new UNC defensive coordinator and former Auburn National Champion head coach Gene Chizik will certainly help the defense get moving in the right direction, but exactly like the preseason hype in recent years, that’s all just talk.
The less obvious reason for UNC's continued mediocrity is their inability to win the big game. In 2012, the Tar Heels gave up 68 points at home in a loss to Georgia Tech that would have given them their first outright ACC Coastal title since the conference split in to two divisions in 2005 (although UNC would not have played in the ACC Championship due to a postseason ban).
In 2013, it was falling flat at South Carolina on national TV, getting crushed at home by ECU and blowing a late fourth quarter lead in an ESPN Thursday night home game against Miami deemed as Zero Dark Thursday.
In 2014, it was getting embarrassed against in state rivals ECU and NC State. In South Bend, the Heels let one slip away against Notre Dame in what would have been a monumental program win, and got stomped on the road by Clemson and Miami. UNC has been burning to break the stigma as an average team in an average conference, but they have to win games like this one in Charlotte to prove that they're legit.
Maybe UNC only improves slightly and posts an 9-4 season, but if the Tar Heels can beat the Gamecocks, NC State, Duke and win a bowl game on their way to that 9-4 mark, Tar Heel fans everywhere will be ecstatic and finally have more than just hope that UNC will start to get some of the national recognition they've been searching for for years.
With this game setting the tone for two teams avid on having an improved season from a year ago, this just might be the biggest match-up of unranked teams across the country in Week 1. And oh yeah, don’t forget that with no games between the schools scheduled in the coming years, Border Battle bragging rights are on the line for what could be a long, long time.