The 2015 FBS season kicks off this Thursday night when South takes on North in the Battle of the Carolinas. The Tar Heels are looking to improve on a 6-7 2014 campaign that ended with a 40-21 loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The boys from Columbia are trying to rebound from their own disappointing season. The Gamecocks entered 2014 ranked in the top 10. But a season-opening blow out at the hands of Texas A&M got things off on the wrong foot and losing four straight SEC games in the middle of the season ended any hopes of a major bowl game. At 6-6, South Carolina was invited to the Independence Bowl, where Steve Spurrier's team defeated Miami.
The Tar Heels and the Gamecocks have squared off 54 times with UNC holding a 32-18-4 advantage.
South Carolina vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: South Carolina -2
Podcast: Week 1 Preview w/ Rece Davis
Three Things To Watch
1. The Two New Defensive Coordinators
Both teams scored enough points last fall but were let down by their defenses. That led to new defensive coordinators at both schools. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora went with brand-name recognition, hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. Chizik not only won a national championship as a head coach at Auburn, he also led the defense during Texas’s march to the title in 2005. Spurrier went for familiarity when he tabbed old friend Jon Hoke. The new Gamecocks defensive coordinator comes to Columbia from the Chicago Bears but also spearheaded Spurrier’s defense at Florida from 1999 to 2001. The team that adapts quickest to its new scheme will have a distinct advantage.
2. The Connor Mitch Starting Debut
It will be a big day for the South Carolina quarterback. The Raleigh native will be making his first collegiate start in Charlotte against his home-state Tar Heels. Undoubtedly, the redshirt sophomore will have plenty of family and friends in attendance. The Gamecock defense, especially early, should be a work in progress, meaning Mitch will have to put points on the board. The good news is that there are some veterans on the offensive line and he can throw the ball to Pharoh Cooper.
3. North Carolina’s Offensive Line
Everyone is back up front, but it was a unit that was inconsistent in 2014. Protection was an issue at times and the rushing offense finished No. 83 in the country. Quarterback Marquise Williams had hip surgery in the offseason and needs to stay upright. Also, the line must do a better job opening up holes for T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. Like South Carolina, the Tar Heels’ defense will need time to develop and the offense will need to score a lot of points to win games. For UNC to thrive early, the offensive line has to take a step forward.
Points should be plentiful as the two Carolinas square off just north of the border. While South Carolina’s defense was not very good in 2014, North Carolina’s was especially atrocious. The Tar Heels, though, return just about everyone on offense. On the other hand, the Gamecocks not only have to adjust to a new defensive scheme, they have to rebuild an offense around Cooper, their supremely talented, do-everything wide receiver. Both teams will score several times. I think the Tar Heels will hold the Gamecocks to field goals on a few occasions, giving UNC the opening night victory.
Prediction: North Carolina 42, South Carolina 37
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.