It’s been four years since they've last seen each other — and it will be another four years until their next meeting — but the Battle of the Carolinas resumes this Saturday as the Gamecocks and the Tar Heels kick it off in Charlotte. North Carolina is starting over after consecutive nine-loss seasons, while Jake Bentley begins his final season as the South Carolina quarterback.
Mack Brown’s return attracted a ton of attention this offseason, and the time has come to see what he has built in Year 1. There is youth at the most important position, but plenty of guys who have seen extensive action are listed on the two-deep.
Will Muschamp believes that this is the most talented team he's had at South Carolina. The head coach will ask a lot from his senior quarterback, who has played in 33 games during his time in Columbia and thrown for more 7,300 yards. With a solid campaign, Bentley would pass Todd Ellis as South Carolina’s all-time passing yardage leader.
The Gamecocks have won three in a row in this series but still trail overall 34-19-4.
South Carolina vs. North Carolina
When: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: South Carolina -10
When South Carolina Has the Ball
It will be interesting to see how much balance South Carolina can establish. Last year, the Gamecocks were 26th in America in passing offense but just 92nd in rushing. Rico Dowdle is back for his senior season after rushing for 654 yards in 2018, and he will be aided by Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster. North Carolina has had rush defense issues for several years; there are only three returning starters in the front seven, and one of those, Dominique Ross, will miss the first half because of his role in the fight in last year’s season finale against NC State.
The key matchup when South Carolina has the ball will be the Gamecock receivers against the experienced North Carolina secondary. Whether South Carolina can run the ball or not, Bentley will look to get the ball downfield to Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. UNC will be without Patrice Rene in the first half due to the Wolfpack brawl, but the strength of the Heels’ defense is on the back end, with Trey Morrison at corner and Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk at safety.
Turnovers will certainly play a role in the outcome, and though Bentley is prone to throwing the ball to the other team at times, North Carolina has intercepted only 15 passes in the last three years combined.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
After seeing all the quarterbacks compete in camp, Brown decided that the best bet for the Heels was true freshman Sam Howell. It wasn’t a huge surprise, as the four-star prospect was considered the favorite by many analysts the moment he stepped on campus. Backup Jace Ruder will play, but Howell will get the lion’s share of the action in coordinator Phil Longo’s fast-paced offense.
Fortunately, the quarterbacks have skill to lean on at both running back and receiver. Dazz Newsome headlines a trio of speedy targets out wide, while running backs Michael Carter, Javonte Williams and Antonio Williams all averaged over five yards per carry last year. South Carolina will counter the UNC receivers with two big corners in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu.
North Carolina’s biggest priority, though, will be to slow down the South Carolina defensive line, particularly tackle Javon Kinlaw and end D.J. Wonnum. Kinlaw is a disruptive force inside, and Wonnum, who missed most of last year with an ankle injury, had six sacks and 13 tackles for lost yardage in 2017. The Heels’ offensive line is a bit of a question mark, and it will get tested right away by the Gamecocks.
The optimism surrounding the hire of Mack Brown has to do with the long-term outlook of the North Carolina program. While they’d like to win immediately, this season is about establishing a system and improving over the course of 12 games. South Carolina, on the other hand, has a senior quarterback, a senior No. 1 receiver, senior running backs, seniors in Kinlaw and Wonnum on the defensive line, and senior linebacker T.J. Brunson, the team's leading tackler last season. The time is now, and with perhaps the nation’s most difficult schedule in front of them, the Gamecocks know that if they don’t win in Week 1, just earning bowl eligibility may be difficult. But South Carolina will win, thanks to a decent running game and the arm of their veteran quarterback.
Prediction: South Carolina 31, North Carolina 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.