College football’s 2013 season kicks off with an ACC-SEC matchup between North Carolina and South Carolina. The Tar Heels were ineligible to play in the postseason last year but compiled an impressive 8-4 record in coach Larry Fedora’s first year. The Gamecocks went 11-2 in 2012, defeating Georgia and rival Clemson in impressive fashion.
Even though both teams are coming off a good season, the stakes are even higher in 2013. South Carolina’s schedule should allow it to be a factor in the national title conversation. North Carolina is one of the frontrunners to win the ACC’s Coastal Division and could improve on last year’s 8-4 mark.
These two teams have played only once since 1992, with South Carolina winning 21-15 in 2007. The Tar Heels lost their last game against an SEC opponent, dropping a 30-24 contest to LSU in Atlanta in 2010.
Three Things to Watch
North Carolina’s offensive line
The Tar Heels had one of the ACC’s best offensive lines last season, allowing less than one sack per game and paving the way for running backs to average 5.1 yards per carry. However, three new starters will step into the lineup on Thursday night. Guard Jonathan Cooper was the biggest loss for North Carolina, but left tackle James Hurst is one of the ACC’s best linemen, and center Russell Bodine started all 12 games last year and was named to the Rimington watch list (nation’s best center) for 2013. Hurst and Bodine is a good place to start the rebuilding effort up front, but the rest of the line will be under pressure against South Carolina’s defensive line, which is arguably the best in college football with All-American Jadeveon Clowney leading the way off the edge. Guards Caleb Peterson (redshirt freshman) and Landon Turner (sophomore) have very little experience, and right tackle Jon Heck redshirted last year. North Carolina has good size in the trenches, but this is a huge test for a revamped line in the first game of the year.
Dylan Thompson or Connor Shaw?
South Carolina has two quarterbacks its feels comfortable with, and coach Steve Spurrier has hinted he plans on getting both on the field at the same time. Connor Shaw threw for 1,956 yards and 17 scores last season, while Dylan Thompson threw for 1,027 yards and 10 touchdowns. Shaw is the better runner, recording 435 yards and three scores on 131 attempts. Whether it’s Shaw or Thompson at quarterback, South Carolina has to find a couple of reliable receivers. Bruce Ellington is questionable to play with a hamstring injury, which means Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland and Nick Jones needs to step up for the Gamecocks’ passing attack. There’s no question South Carolina can win with both quarterbacks. But it’s uncertain how this quarterback rotation or depth chart will play out in 2013. North Carolina’s defense struggled to stop the pass last year, and even if Ellington is sidelined, stopping Thompson and Shaw is a tough assignment.
Setting the tempo
One way for North Carolina to neutralize South Carolina’s advantage in the trenches is with tempo. The Tar Heels averaged 75 plays a game last season, which is 10 more than the Gamecocks averaged on offense in 2012. With another offseason to learn Fedora’s offense, North Carolina should pickup the tempo even more in 2013. And if the Tar Heels can keep South Carolina’s defense on the field, it should help to wear down some of the linemen, allowing Renner more time to throw in the pocket.
Key Player: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
South Carolina is deep and talented on the defensive line, but the linebacking corps will feature three new starters this year. Ebron’s ability to work the middle of the field to take advantage of the inexperienced defenders could be crucial in this matchup. The junior caught 40 passes for 625 yards and four scores last season, and the coaching staff wants him to be even more involved with the offense in 2013. Thursday night would be a good place for Ebron to deliver.
If North Carolina can dictate the tempo and wear out South Carolina’s defense, then Fedora’s team will have a chance to win. However, the Gamecocks offense will present plenty of problems for the Tar Heels. Thompson and Shaw are capable of leading this offense on scoring drives, while running back Mike Davis is a rising star. Expect North Carolina to move the ball at times, but South Carolina’s defense will be too much in the end.
South Carolina 31, North Carolina 23
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