Date/Time: August 31, 3:30pm
Line: South Carolina -10
Series Record: North Carolina 34-19-4, South Carolina has won last three meetings.
Podcast: Right here baby, I talked to Richard Cox of Garnet and Black Attack, and we are equally self-loathing about our respective programs.
I wrote about South Carolina earlier this month in a little more detail here, but let’s take a look at the key matchups on what promises to be a muggy Charlotte afternoon.
What’s At Stake?
A lot for both sides.
For North Carolina, exorcising the demons of their only regular-season loss in this same venue will be in the back of the minds for the players, but at the forefront for fans. The Gamecocks won the 2015 matchup 17-13 on the way to a 3-9 season with a loss to The Citadel and Steve Spurrier quitting midway through. The Heels finished 11-3, losing in the ACC Championship game to Clemson 45-37— a win against South Carolina, and that game would’ve truly been for a spot in the playoffs.
There’s also the whole “Mack Brown’s return” storyline, but I think that has been well-documented in this space.
For South Carolina, a brutal schedule lies ahead. If they’re going to get to bowl eligibility this year, this is a must-win. Probably a top-20 team talent-wise, they have likely losses to Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and Clemson to look forward to. A loss puts Will Muschamp immediately in the hot seat.
South Carolina Offense vs. North Carolina Defense
When I say South Carolina has a balanced attack on offense...I mean that quite literally. The Gamecocks ran the ball 444 times in 2018 under OC Kurt Roper, and passed 443 times.
With experienced senior Jake Bentley behind center, the Gamecocks are as well-prepared for UNC DC Jay Bateman’s unique defense as they can hope to be in Bateman’s P5 debut. Bentley has been turnover-prone in his three years as a starter, and highly-rated freshman Ryan Hilsinki could see some action on Saturday.
The Gamecocks, unfortunately, lost TE Kiel Pollard during fall camp, as he retired from football due to a neck injury. He was their third-leading returning receiver from a year ago. They do bring back a dangerous trio outside in Bryan Edwards, Shi Smith, and Josh Vann, and will look to test Carolina’s secondary early. The Heels’ best corner, Patrice Rene, is suspended for the first half from the celebration at the end of last year’s State game. (Starting linebacker Dominique Ross is, as well.)
Given the Gamecocks’ balance on offense and Ross’ suspension, the Tar Heels are relying on JuCo transfer Raymond Vohasek as a starting defensive end, and moving the versatile Tomon Fox to rush LB for this game in an effort to get a little more size on the field to combat South Carolina’s SEC-sized offensive line.
You’ll see a committee approach to running behind that offensive line, as Rico Dowdle should be the starter— but Mon Denson and Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster will see snaps as well.
Under Bateman, the hope is that the Tar Heels can create some negative plays and confusion while holding serve in the first half, allowing a fresh Rene and Ross to reinforce the defense in the second. Quite frankly, I don’t know what to expect from this defense until I see it in game action. The secondary will likely be tested early and often.
North Carolina Offense vs. South Carolina Defense
The big story here is true freshman QB Sam Howell for the Heels. If he plays poised and collected, it will go a long way towards the real Carolina scoring the upset.
Expect the Heels to lean heavily on the three-headed monster of Michael Carter, Javonte Williams, and Antonio Williams early to allow the young gunslinger and offensive line a chance to establish a rhythm. If they can shorten the game by paving out some first downs and winning the field position battle early, it portends great things for the Heels.
In the Tar Heels’ favor? Phil Longo did lead the Ole Miss offense to 616 yards against South Carolina in a 48-44 loss last year, so the chess match between he and Will Muschamp will be fascinating. The Heels aren’t as talented or experienced as those Rebels, but there is some proof of concept here.
Combating that will be an experienced front seven for South Carolina. They return havoc-inducing linebackers T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene, Buck D.J. Wonnum, and 6’6 300-lb DT Javon Kinlaw, among others, which may make establishing the run a difficult task.
When the Heels are forced to throw the ball, they’ll lean on dynamic talent over experience. Sophomores Dyami Brown and Antoine Green join junior Dazz Newsome as the starters at receiver. Expect Howell to take some shots to his three explosive playmakers.
This is going to be a problem area for the Tar Heels, in the kicking game. Michael Rubino has some experience from his time at App State, Cooper Graham and Noah Ruggles are untested, and punter Ben Kiernan is a true freshman.
South Carolina, on the other hand, returns PK Parker White and 2nd-team All-SEC punter Joseph Charlton.
Advantage, South Carolina.
For the Carolina defense, it is a decade-long problem: stop the running game first, second, and then again. If the Heels can’t control the run, this game is over.
For the Tar Heels’ offense, Sam Howell would be too easy of a pick here. So I’m going with his safety valves— TE/H-Back Carl Tucker, and Michael Carter out of the backfield. If those two can make explosive plays in the open field, it opens everything up for the UNC O.
As a bonus, UNC needs to play South Carolina to a draw on special teams.
Look, if you’re expecting a North Carolina win, more power to you. If the Heels are going to win, they’re going to need to be at least +2 in turnover margin. Not unthinkable with Bateman’s ballhawking defense, but also not likely when you consider there is a senior QB on one side against a team running a brand new scheme...and a true freshman against an experienced defense on the other side.
The Heels can, and would like to, win— the Gamecocks should, and NEED to win given their ridiculous schedule.
I think the game plays pretty close to the spread. The Gamecocks will capitalize on UNC’s emotion and inexperience early, building a 10-14 point lead, and keep the Heels at bay in Charlotte.
South Carolina 34, North Carolina 23