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UNC vs. South Carolina: X-Factor

It’s baptism by fire for UNC’s remade secondary.

North Carolina v Appalachian State Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Here we are, the first game of the season, and it’s straight into the fire.

As part of the Tar Heel Blog season previews, I caught you up to speed on the part of the team that saw the most turmoil in the offseason: the secondary. As we try to figure out what the biggest x-factor that will define Carolina’s success or failure on Saturday, you need to look no further.

Carolina’s defense was ugly in a lot of ways last season, rating near the bottom in just about every metric you could think of. But when you have a part of the defense that has an All-ACC performer and preseason All-American, then it’s the other part that you have to look at as the problem. Clearly Mack Brown and Gene Chizik thought the same, pushing UNC legend Dre Bly out the door along with several high-profile UNC recruits. The replacements were grinders both in the the coaching and playing realm, indicating they are just looking for players who know their job, and don't have to be taught technique.

It’s going to be tested early. They face a South Carolina squad helmed by Spencer Rattler, the fifth year senior who transferred from Oklahoma before 2022. He threw for 3,026 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and only ran for 46 yards. He’s going to be chucking the ball, and he’s going to want to feast on a secondary that had trouble keeping a lead for Drake Maye all season.

To make life more difficult, Rattler has a game breaker to throw it to. His leading receiver last year, Antwane “Juice” Wells, returns, giving him a comfort level in a target that should help his establish his game quickly. Wells Is projected to be a problem, getting the first team All-SEC preseason honors and is on the Biletnikoff watch list. That said, Wells has been battling an injury that head coach Shane Beamer has been mysterious on, and Gamecock fans are doubtful he’ll play.

That said, when you look at the spread of Rattler’s pass catchers from last year, you see he had no problem spreading it around. No one receiver had over 1,000 yards catching yet Rattler had that 3,000 yard season. If Wells plays, the secondary has someone to focus on, and Rattler can find the holes. If not, then he has a lot of options and Carolina wouldn’t know where to focus.

Add to this the fact that the Gamecocks as a whole didn’t run much — it was a weakness last year and they didn’t address it this year — and it brings together a pretty transparent gameplay for the Gamecocks. They are going to test this secondary.

So, we’ll see pretty quickly just what sort of progress this group has made. As the secondary is under new leadership, and the Tar Heels will be leaning on different corners than teams have tape on, there’s a chance that the Tar Heels will be able to make some stops early. Also, with Rattler being a passing-only quarterback, the front should be able to focus more on pressuring him to where the secondary will only have to focus on their receivers instead of being ready for the run.

The success or failure of this retooled secondary is the biggest x-factor for Saturday. They can still win with another bad game, they have before, but it would make life a lot easier if they could actually be relied on.