College Football Picks: Back North Carolina +2.5 For Neutral-Site Opener vs. South Carolina

Matthew Jordan

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 12:19 AM UTC

Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2015 12:19 AM UTC

The 2015 college football season kicks off at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday night -- not a moment too soon! -- as North Carolina faces South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The Gamecocks are 2-point favorites at Pinnacle with a total of 64 points.

Defensive Makeovers On Both Sides
This is definitely a make-or-break season for fourth-year North Carolina head coach Larry  Fedora. He came from Southern Miss following a 12-2 season in 2011 and made a bowl game all four years there, which is pretty impressive considering how lousy that program is these days. Alas, Fedora hasn't been able to find the same success in the ACC. The Heels were 8-4 his first year, 7-6 in 2013 and then 6-7 a year ago. He will not be back in 2016 with another losing record, that's a guarantee.

Perhaps Fedora's possible replacement is already on staff. That would be defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who of course won a national championship as Auburn's head coach in 2010 -- thanks largely to Cam Newton -- but was fired after a 3-9 record in 2012. Chizik was hired this offseason because the UNC defense was one of the nation's worst in 2014. North Carolina finished 120th in the nation in total defense and 119th in scoring defense. Some guys are simply meant to be coordinators and not head coaches and maybe that's Chizik. He coordinated the Auburn defense in 2004 when the Tigers were unbeaten and  then a Texas defense that won a national championship.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, meanwhile, is in no danger of losing his job even though the Gamecocks were a hugely disappointing 7-6 last season. They did beat Miami (Fla.) in the Independence Bowl to win a postseason game for a school-record fourth straight season. Defense was largely a problem for South Carolina in 2014 as well. That group, which was terrific in 2013 led by star end Jadeveon Clowney, was 92nd nationally in total defense (432.7 YPG) and 89th in scoring defense (30.4 PPG). In conference games, the Gamecocks finished next to last in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 36.8 points per game. USC lost three games this season in which it blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.

So Spurrier has brought in a new coordinator in Jon Hoke. He served as the defensive coordinator under Spurrier at Florida from 1999-2001 (replacing Bob Stoops when he took the Oklahoma head coaching job). Hoke had been in the NFL since then. Hoke is a big believer in a zone blitz scheme. Former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau made that famous. It's a high-risk but high-reward style. South Carolina rarely blitzed in recent years.


Mitch Makes Starting Debut
This will be the first collegiate start for South Carolina sophomore quarterback Connor Mitch. He won a four-man battle to replace the departed Dylan Thompson in camp. You might see true freshman Lorenzo Nunez get some snaps in a Wildcat-type role. Mitch played in two games last season as Thompson’s backup, completing 2-for-6 for 19 yards. He does have one of the SEC's best receivers in do-it-all Pharoh Cooper. He caught 69 balls for 1,136 yards and nine scores last year. In fact, Cooper had more pass attempts last season (eight) than any current USC QB has at the collegiate level.

The UNC offense should be very good -- the Heels scored 30 points or more eight times last  year but were only 5-3 in those because of that shaky defense. Ten starters are back on that side of the ball, led by quarterback Marquise Williams. He completed 63.1 percent of his passes in 2014 for 3,068 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine picks. He also led the team with 788 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. The Heels don't want him to run as much this year as injuries nagged him much of 2014. Williams also was sacked 26 times and knocked down on 89 of his pass attempts.

North Carolina leads the all-time series 34-18-4, but South Carolina has won the past two. The last meeting was 27-10 in Columbia to open the 2013 season. Spurrier is 5-0 in his career against UNC. He is 23-2 all-time in season openers, although USC did get blown out in last year's opener at home by Texas A&M.

College Football Picks: Hard to trust either defense so go 'over' the total of 65 with your college football picks at 5Dimes. I like UNC on the side at +2.5 college football odds. South Carolina is just 1-6 ATS in its past seven September games. The Heels are 6-1 ATS at sportsbooks in their past seven on Thursday.

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