Leading up to Week 1 season openers, SDS’ Brad Crawford breaks down the opponents battling SEC squads and what makes them click in marquee out-of-conference matchups.
Aug. 20: TCU (vs. LSU, Aug. 31, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Aug. 21: Washington State (at Auburn, Aug. 31, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
TODAY: North Carolina (at South Carolina, Aug. 29, 6 p.m., ESPN)
FRIDAY: Clemson (vs. Georgia, Aug. 31, 8 p.m., ABC)
SATURDAY: Virginia Tech (vs. Alabama, Aug. 31, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
SUNDAY: Oklahoma State (vs. Mississippi St., Aug. 31, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Opens Aug. 29 at South Carolina
THE SKINNY: Finally, North Carolina’s trip to Williams-Brice as part of a home-and-home six years in the making is only a few days away and has been selected as ESPN’s season kick off no less. Last time these two rivals hooked up in 2007, South Carolina left Chapel Hill a 21-15 victor ranked 7th in the country. What happened the rest of the way that season was catastrophic both to the fanbase and the Head Ball Coach. The Gamecocks dropped five straight to close out the campaign — with Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher rotating at quarterback — and didn’t receive a bowl invite at 6-6. Things are different now for the Garnet and Black thanks to a strong recruiting surge and overall talent increase over the last several years. North Carolina enters its second season under former Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora who opened the season in Columbia once before with his Golden Eagles in 2010. The Tar Heels are expected to challenge for the ACC’s Coastal Division title along with Miami and Virginia Tech.
KEY PLAYER: SEC fans probably aren’t familiar with UNC left tackle James Hurst, but his name will be thrown around plenty by ESPN’s broadcast crew in the first quarter of the Tar Heels’ opener in Columbia. Why? The 6-foot-7, 305-pound All-America candidate gets the brutal assignment of protecting veteran quarterback Bryn Renner against Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s only defensive player on the Heisman short list. North Carolina’s effectiveness at the line of scrimmage will ultimately decide whether or not this one’s a close or multi-touchdown contest. When Renner has time in the pocket, he’s one of the ACC’s best and the Tar Heels like to push tempo. They’re hoping a quick, efficient passing game eliminates South Carolina’s prolific pass rush and opens up space on the edges.
WHAT TO WATCH: Who will step up as a playmaker this season at North Carolina? The Tar Heels’ top difference maker, Gio Bernard, is now carrying the football for the Cincinnati Bengals. Top receiver Quinshad Davis is back (61 catches, 776 yards, 5 TD) and he’s on the Biletnikoff watch list, but outside of the Gaffney, S.C. native, UNC’s two other leading pass-catchers — including Bernard — are no longer with the program. Tight end Eric Ebron is a reliable threat at the sticks and averaged 15.6 yards per catch as a sophomore. In the opener against the Gamecocks, fifth-year tailback A.J. Blue and sophomore Romar Morris are listed 1-2 on the depth chart in the backfield. Defensively, the Tar Heels return seven starters including future NFL end Kareem Martin. Like the Gamecocks, North Carolina is inexperienced at linebacker and could be tested early across the middle by Connor Shaw’s arm and his expertise in the zone read.
FINAL SAY: Dating back to the 2000 season, South Carolina has won 13 consecutive season openers and as a double-digit favorite with a senior quarterback who has never lost a start at home, don’t expect any different this season. The school record for consecutive wins in the opener is 19, so Steve Spurrier will have to stick around a few more years to hit that number. As a head coach, Spurrier’s 22-1 all-time in openers with his only loss ironically coming to South Carolina in 1989 at Duke. In what promises to feature a raucous atmosphere to open the college football season against an out-of-state rival, the Gamecocks should be able to breathe easy in the fourth quarter looking ahead at their Week 2 showdown in Athens.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports