You would think that a couple of major universities sitting less than 250 miles apart would have gotten together more often in the past than the South Carolina Gamecocks and North Carolina Tar Heels have. But this year's clash in Columbia to open the college football campaign is only the 56th meeting in their rich histories, and first since 2007.
Or is it the 57th meeting? Did ESPN possibly leak their prediction for outright result in this border rivalry? And finally, is it really a rivalry? Those are just three questions I intend to answer in the next couple of minutes, along with what I think about a 10.5 point spread favoring the 'Cocks on their home turf at Williams-Brice Stadium.
This was a pretty good rivalry before South Carolina left the old ACC in the early-70s, and it really died off in early 90s. The 6 PM (ET) kickoff in South Carolina might be the first attempt at rekindling embers between the old foes; UNC and USC will also meet a couple of years from now (Sept. 5, 2015) in Charlotte.
Gamecocks On Offense/Tar Heels on Defense
It's now or never for senior QB Connor Shaw to prove he can lead the offense through a complete season. Keeping him upright will be the job of USC's massive offensive line after the team allowed 38 sacks last year, tied for 11th-most. Shaw proved in games against Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas he can put the ball in the air with positive results, but against the likes of LSU and Florida, he failed to get the job done.
If there was any good news to come out of Marcus Lattimore's season-ending injury last October in the game vs. the Vols, it was the ol' ball coach, Steve Spurrier, got to audition backs for this year's rush attach. Mike Davis is the top tailback on the depth chart right now, but don't go to sleep on soph Brandon Wilds who redshirted last year following a fine true freshman campaign in 2011. The running game will be important since the receiver corps lacks a proven star.
North Carolina was a middling team on defense a year ago but returns seven starters, including defensive end Kareem Martin who is about to close out a solid career and will soon be playing on Sundays. Martin leads a talented line, and the DB's all have experience, but the LB's are a mystery outside of senior Tommy Heffernan. Head coach Larry Fedora and defensive coordinator Dan Disch have to come up with a plan to keep pressure on Shaw, which means stopping the Gamecocks on the ground to start with.
UNC On Offense/USC On Defense
The Tar Heels finished eighth in the country in scoring (40.6 ppg) in 2012 and have senior Bryn Renner back at QB to direct the attack. Renner threw for nearly 280 yards per game with a nice 28/7 TD-to-INT ratio; Quinshad Davis (61 rec., 5 TD) and Sean Tapley (26 rec., 5 TD) return to give him a couple of familiar targets.
A big loss on the offensive side was tailback Gio Bernard, who ran for over 1,200 yards each of the last two seasons before bolting for the NFL and the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round. Senior AJ Blue is expected to step into the starting RB role after picking up 433 yards on the ground with nine scores last year.
All of the talk about USC's defense is on Jadeveon Clowney, and for good reason. A potential No. 1 pick in next April's NFL draft, Clowney is a beast and will anchor the defensive line for the Gamecocks. That line also includes talented tackle Kelcy Quarles while Victor Hampton is back on the corner.
The problem is South Carolina's inexperience at linebacker, and six new starters on the unit overall. As good as Clowney is, he can't rush the passer, stop a week-side run and cover deep routes at the same time. And UNC has a solid tackle to match up against Clowney in James Hurst, himself a potential 1st-round draft pick. That battle is where everyone's focus should be the first 2-3 series they clash.
Is It 34-17-4 UNC, Or 34-18-4 Tar Heels?
All signs point to UNC standing 34-17-4 all-time in this series. ESPN did list the series 34-18-4 Tar Heels in a release, but that appears to have been an error by the worldwide leader in sports.
I'm a weather junkie, especially when it comes to knowing a forecast before placing their college football picks. Two weeks out from kickoff, that information obviously isn't available, but I urge everyone to check before going to the window, especially totals bettors with those NCAAF odds still to be released.
South Carolina has played its season opener on Thursday night six times since Spurrier arrived in 2005, and the Gamecocks have won them all. That includes last year's narrow victory over Vanderbilt. Don't see an outright upset, but I do like UNC and the points for my free sports pick.My Pick: North Carolina +10.5 (-110)