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May 30, 2013There is no doubt in anyone's mind that North Carolina's opening game against South Carolina in Columbia will be one of the toughest battles all season long for the Tar Heels.
A nationally televised game, an opening game for the college football season, and against a likely top 10 team all point to an opportunity for the Tar Heels to open the season with a statement win on their resume if they are able to defeat the Gamecocks.
With training camp still over two months away there's a lot of variables that could change things between now and late August, but here is a very early preview of the season opener in Williams Brice Stadium.
The Gamecocks will be bringing back some stellar talent, while like most all college teams they're looking for players to step up to the plate to replace others that either graduated or left for the NFL.
Last year the Gamecocks went 11-2, with losses coming to two Top 15 teams in LSU and Florida. But they knocked off Georgia in the only regular season loss the Bulldogs took last fall. The Gamecocks went on to defeat Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Offensively, South Carolina returns Connor Shaw, a senior who can throw and run around the field, making him a multi-dimensional player that the Tar Heels will have to give a lot of attention this summer in game preparations and film study.
But Steve Spurrier likes to switch his quarterbacks from time to time, especially when one isn't playing to his liking.
So with that said, don't be surprised to hear the name Dylan Thompson as well, especially if things don't get off to a good start in the season opener with Shaw under center.
Standout running back and former UNC recruiting target Marcus Lattimore is the main name people will remember for the Gamecocks that will need to be replaced in the offense, as the memory of his gruesome knee injury is one that still sends shivers through the minds of lovers of the sport.
However, USC seems to have some quality backs in the backfield this year, as sophomore Mike Davis (had 275 yard on 52 carries last year) will look to carry the load, along with others such as Brandon Wilds and Kendric Salley.
Sort of like UNC, who heads into 2013 looking for multiple players to replace Giovani Bernard, the Gamecocks will likely throw several backs at the Tar Heels on what figures to be a steamy late summer night in the South Carolina capital.
At wide receiver, South Carolina always seems to have multiple talented guys but not too many that put up the big numbers that other receivers do in the nation.
That's partially due to Spurrier's longtime strategy of distributing the football around to a wide range of pass catchers in his aerial-heavy offensive philosophy.
UNC will have to take notice of the athletes that will be outside the hashes, as some of the more dynamic players on the entire South Carolina roster will challenge UNC's linebackers and secondary.
Bruce Ellington will be the lone starter returning, as he led the Gamecocks last year with 600 yards and figures to have a chance for preseason All-SEC consideration.
USC will also have youngster Damiere Byrd, who will provide the speed factor as he averaged 26.1 yards per catch last year, and projected starter Nick Jones, who had 12 catches for 271 yards last year.
While Ellington, Byrd, and Jones are all guys that can make things happen in space, UNC may have one potential advantage in that none of them are taller than 5-9, which is something that could be a factor when the Tar Heel cornerbacks take them on.
Spurrier has always liked having a big offensive line and this season will be no different, as he will have an experienced front with an average weight of 322 pounds.
Everyone on the 2012 offensive line will be returning except at the center position, as Cody Waldrop, a redshirt freshman, will be assigned that duty.
On defense there are a few names that jump out for the Gamecocks, but the one that really stands out with everyone is Jadeveon Clowney, the monster on the defensive line and the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
But others such as Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton, and J.T. Surratt (along with multiple others) will also be seen on film this summer by the Tar Heels and identified as players they're going to have to handle along the line of scrimmage.
While the South Carolina defensive line looks to be one of the strongest in the SEC heading into the season---which by default means one of the best in the country---things may not be quite as stable directly behind them.
The Gamecock linebackers will clearly be the weaker link of the USC defense, at least on paper, as no one that is returning at that position has more than 5 tackles in a game coming into the season.
And while certainly guys will emerge in training camp at linebacker for the Gamecocks, and the position group is somewhat loaded with young talent, it is experienced and a potential hole that Larry Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will try to punch a lot in the season opener.
Victor Hampton, Brison Williams, and Jimmy Legree, among others, will be the guys holding down the secondary for the Gamecocks.
They were a solid group last year considering their stiff competition, allowing 2,533 yards passing with 15 interceptions.
Offensively it will be interesting to see if Spurrier gets back more to the passing game this fall, as he did during his days at Florida, after leaning more heavily on the run during the Lattimore years.
Last year, USC had 491 carries on the ground by 12 different guys, compared to only 225 receptions on 365 pass attempts.
The Tar Heels will have to be stout on defense, keying in on the run game while keeping an eye on Shaw both running and throwing the ball.
Most prognosticators will understandably give the big edge to South Carolina's offense over UNC's defense given how the Tar Heels performed late last season defensively, but the North Carolina secondary should go to Columbia healthier than they were down the stretch last year, when they struggled to reign in offenses like Georgia Tech, Duke, and N.C. State.
South Carolina will look to use their lines on both sides of the ball to disrupt the Tar Heels, especially a UNC offensive line that lost key players to the draft.
The game could very well hinge on the ability of UNC's young and inexperienced offensive line to deal with a group of Gamecock defenders more than capable of neutralizing the line of scrimmage and making Bryn Renner's night miserable with consistent pressure.
While the Tar Heels could really have their hands full blocking Clowney, as will everyone facing him this coming season, UNC might find a few vulnerabilities by getting the Gamecocks flustered through the continuous running of the no-huddle, spread offense.
Overall though, this is a game that should be a standout opener for both teams.
As all the fans know, they will be opening the college football season on a Thursday night, with a lot of eyeballs on them.
To the winner comes the national respect that can only come with beating a quality non-conference opponent on national television.
For the Tar Heels, it's the type of potential win that could propel a possible dream season, while a loss, especially a bad one, certainly won't help raise confidences that Fedora can get UNC competitive on a national level.
Needless to say, it's a game that's going to have a lot written about it in the coming three months, and will be on a lot of people's minds as summer winds through in the Carolinas.