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Carolina Football: South Carolina opponent preview

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Football is right around the corner, so let’s get ready by taking a look at the Heels’ first opponent.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 South Carolina at Clemson Photo by Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With training camp in full swing, now is as good a time as any to start looking ahead to the 2019 Carolina football schedule. In years past, I’ve done posts of about 1,500 words on each opponent— and that process was absolutely exhausting. This year, let’s aim for more of a ‘get to know you’ approach so we can tackle them in-depth during game week.

The first five games of the Tar Heels’ schedule are absolutely daunting— with South Carolina, Miami, Appalachian State, Wake Forest, and national champion Clemson meeting the Heels, the very real possibility of an 0-5 start exists.

Given the massive recruiting turnaround under new head coach Mack Brown, let’s hope the on-field product receives a similar, immediate boost.

South Carolina Gamecocks

The Heels open in Charlotte with recruiting rival and SEC foe South Carolina. Given the Heels’ recent recruiting wins over the Gamecocks, there’s a good chance Will Muschamp and company have this game circled as a must-win. (Sidenote: Muschamp was Brown’s head coach in waiting at Texas before getting bored and taking the Florida job. There may be some bad blood lingering.)

Roster

The Gamecocks return 14 starters from last year’s 7-6 squad, and sat at 18th in Bill Connelly’s last 2019 S&P+ ranking before he left for ESPN. The strength of the Gamecocks offense is experience at the skill positions. Quarterback Jake Bentley is back for his fourth year as the starter, and has been solid if not spectacular in his time in Columbia. He took a step forward last year with a 62% completion rate, 27 TD’s, and 3171 yards passing— but proved to still be interception-prone, tossing 14 picks.

He’s surrounded by more experience at the skill positions. Despite the loss of Deebo Samuel, the Cocks return a very strong contingent of pass catchers, led by Bryan Edwards (846 yards, 7 TD) and explosive Shi Smith (673 yards, 4 TD). Tight end Kiel Pollard was productive in limited opportunities as well, and senior running backs Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson are servicable, if not spectacular.

The question marks surrounding South Carolina’s offense are threefold:

  • What happens if Bentley throws an early pick or two? True freshman Ryan Hilsinki is the most highly-touted QB recruit South Carolina has brought in— ever. Bentley may have a short leash.
  • Inexperience on the offensive line: G Donell Stanley will be paid very well in an NFL camp this time next year, but beyond that, there are serious questions. Phil Steele has two redshirt freshmen (Jovaughn Gwyn and Hank Manos) penciled in as starters on the interior line, and junior Sadarius Henderson is making the tricky transition from guard to left tackle. Perhaps this is exploitable in week one.
  • What tricks does second-year OC Bryan McLendon have in the bag? Last time we saw the Gamecocks, they were shut out in Charlotte by Virginia. Is there a hangover effect?

Defensively, the strength is in the linebacking corps. T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene combined for 179 tackles in 2018, and are back for more. Rush LB D.J. Wonnum returns from a sophomore slump after putting up 6 sacks and 57 tackles as a true freshman in 2017.

The headliner of the defense, however, is DT Javon Kinlaw. He used his 6’6 frame to provide some mean run-stuffing ability last year, and rushed the passer well for a DT, with 4.5 sacks. He’s got NFL talent.

The secondary is going to make or break the Gamecocks’ defense. They’re slated to start three sophomores and a transfer (Jamel Cook from the real USC). Similar to the offensive line, this is an area where continuity and chemistry are key— and it is, as of now, unproven.

Schedule

OMG, prayers up to the Gamecocks. In addition to the Tar Heels, they play Appalachian State and Clemson out-of-conference. In-conference, they draw Alabama and a trip to Texas A&M from the SEC West, trips to Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee in the East, and a home date with Florida.

Last time the Heels and Gamecocks met, South Carolina won 17-13 in Charlotte. The teams’ trajectories after that? The Heels won 11 straight, and the Cocks won 2 of their remaining 9 games. This is a better South Carolina team than the 2015 iteration, but the schedule may have them on the periphery of bowl eligibility.

UNC vs. South Carolina Outlook

Oddsmakers have South Carolina winning this game by 7-8.5 points, depending on your sportsbook of choice. That sounds about right to me.

Working in (North) Carolina’s favor will be the complete lack of film on their offensive and defensive attacks. Creating confusion for South Carolina’s offensive line with Jay Bateman’s disguises will prove advantageous to the Heels, but inexperience in the new defense will allow big-play opportunities for Bentley, Edwards, and Smith.

If the Tar Heels’ inexperienced quarterbacks can avoid mistakes, the Heels will be in this game. This is likely a game into the second half, where I expect South Carolina’s depth and continuity to take over.