The South Carolina Gamecocks and North Carolina Tarheels are set to do battle this Thursday at 6:00 p.m. on ESPN with the nation looking on.
It's the highly-anticipated return to college football for the Gamecocks and especially Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney, and the Gamecocks, are hoping that he will begin the run to the Heisman Trophy in Thursday night's game against the Tarheels.
North Carolina is expected to bring their high-powered offense to Columbia led by quarterback Bryn Renner. Renner threw for 3,356 with 28 touchdowns to only seven interceptions last season. He was helped by South Carolina product Quinshad Davis who set the ACC by storm during his freshman season. Davis caught 61 passes for 776 yards and five touchdowns but came on strong the last four games of the season, including 16 catches for 178 yards against Virginia in late November.
The Gamecocks will be led on defense by Jadeveon Clowney but are hoping players like Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton make big impressions on the defensive line as well. They'll need to make up for the inexperience in the linebacker group where it's a young, inexperienced group that's trying to replace four seniors on the two-deep from last season.
On offense, South Carolina is in great shape at the quarterback position. Starter Connor Shaw and backup Dylan Thompson both provide different looks when in the game and should bring stability to the position for the first time with two capable starting SEC quarterbacks. The running backs will be led by Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds, both hoping to take over for Marcus Lattimore who left for the NFL after his junior season. Wide receivers is a group looking to replace Ace Sanders, who also left early for the NFL, with players like Nick Jones, Bruce Ellington and Shaq Roland.
With that being said, let's get down to This, That and the Other - the North Carolina edition.
This game will likely come down to the line of scrimmage for both squads. It seems that South Carolina has the edge on the defensive line opposed to North Carolina's offensive line. UNC replaces three starters on the line, including All-American Jonathan Cooper, but does have a standout James Hurst lining up opposite of Clowney. Expect North Carolina to do their best to slown down the USC pass rush with a lot of quick screens to the outside effectively neutralizing the Gamecocks' defensive line. You can also expect Jadeveon Clowney to draw extra attention from UNC with multiple double teams freeing up some other USC defensive lineman to have their chance at Renner and company. This could be Chaz Sutton's coming out party on Thursday.
Looking at the other side, South Carolina's offensive line brings back an experienced group with four returning starters. However, they'll have to replace center T.J. Johnson with redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop. Waldrop has the right makeup but can he take on the role like Johnson and run with the position for the next four years. It'll be a tough task for the Gamecocks with UNC's Kareem Martin lining up at defensive end. He ended up with 40 tackles, 15.5 tackles for lass and four sacks last season and should be able to improve those numbers this year. South Carolina's offensive line has struggled this fall camp but due in large part to the play of Jadeveon Clowney. Are the Gamecocks better prepared facing that defense every day? You bet. Now it's time to prove it against real live competition.
Expect South Carolina to have the edge on both sides of the line of scrimmage but UNC has some talent to make it tough for the Gamecocks, especially on defense, to establish a rhythm on offense. The Gamecocks need for their offensive line to step up and provide some running room for running backs Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson. If they can do that, they will set the tempo for the game and should have control most of the night.
That South Carolina is looking like they will be without several receiving targets could spell trouble for the inexperienced receiving corps of the Gamecocks. South Carolina has injuried players like wide receiver Bruce Ellington and tight ends Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams that could all miss time or be limited during Thursday night's game.
Ellington is considered the leader of this wide receiver group and really came into his own in the position last season. This year, he's expected to be more productive as he'll be the main target for Shaw and Thompson at wide receiver. Lining up at tight end are both Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams who provide mismatches galore for opposing defenses. Both are big, sure-handed targets who can run up and down the field and create problems for opposing linebackers and safeties trying to cover them in the passing game. Anderson is listed as "out" for the game while Ellington has been tagged as "questionable." Anderson has been a sure-handed receiving tight end for South Carolina the last two seasons and he'll be missed in this lineup.
The Gamecocks will be looking to some unprovens to step up and man the receiving group. Shaq Roland is the first man up lining up at the "X" receiver position filling in for the injured Ellington. The former Mr. Football will have his shot to make his name under the lights at Williams-Brice. He's big-play potential waiting to be unleashed. Maybe UNC is just the opponent to get it done. Pharoh Cooper is another name that could see his name called early on Thursday. Cooper made the switch to offense after signing as a defensive back in February and has impressed greatly in his short time on offense. His name is No. 2 on the depth chart already at the "B" receiver position behind Nick Jones thanks to his play-making ability. He's quick, elusive and knows what to do with the ball. The Gamecocks need that in this offense with Ellington possibly out.
What happens with the passing game on Thursday could be very dependent on some unproven receivers. This is the opportunity to make a name for yourself on ESPN. Who will step up to the challenge?
The other thing to think about with the Gamecocks on Thursday night is just what little senior leadership they have heading into this season. Currently, the depth chart lists just four seniors on the two-deep for the UNC game. It's impressive to see such younger talent stepping to the forefront for South Carolina, which bodes well for the future.
The question remains hows do it bode for the present with the Gamecocks? Last year's defense was led by players like D.J. Swearinger, Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, DeVonte Holloman and more. With those guys gone, who will be the focal points of the defense and become the leader? Obviously Clowney is a leader in his own right but he's never been a vocal player like Swearinger was. Victor Hampton will have to fill that void but getting consistent play out of him will be key for South Carolina. He's got the talent and has played extremely well at times. Now it's time to be the face for the defense.
Offense is in a similar situation with just Connor Shaw and Ronald Patrick providing senior leadership for the Gamecocks. Shaw has been through it all and has a chance to become USC's all-time leader in wins at the quarterback position if Shaw can win seven or more games this season. How he performs will be big on whether or not the Gamecocks rotate at the quarterback position this season. We expect it to happen but what once looked like a certainty has now become something that may not happen. Spurrier has said it's Shaw's game from start and his veteran leadership could be a major driving force for the Gamecocks's offense this year.
This game should be an uncomfortable one for North Carolina. They didn't face a crowd of 62,000 last year on the schedule and right off the bat, they'll have to continue with around 82,000 or so screaming fans. Home-field advantage has been huge for South Carolina the last three seasons and it's an extra feather in the cap for South Carolina in this game.
These Gamecocks are battle-tested and have faced all kinds of challenges. They are now being mentioned as national championship contenders so another challenger will be themselves. Can they play through these high expectations and showcase themselves as a threat for the title against UNC? This is an opportunity to make a statement. Normally, the Gamecocks struggle in season openers and come out flat. It would do them wonders if they could come out on fire, poised and ready to go on Thursday night.
It's time for South Carolina to step up and showcase what Carolina football is about.
Are you ready?