Amid big-screen TVs, beverages and burgers, a gathering of die-hard University of South Carolina football fans sized up the new season that begins tonight.


Who: USC vs. UNC

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Network: ESPN

The consensus at The Roost on Savannah Highway was that things were looking pretty good for the ball club, but hold off on getting too cocky just yet.

“The first few weeks are going to determine a lot,” alum Bobby Hartin said.

The Gamecocks open their season at 6 tonight against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. Area sports bars are expected to be awash in garnet-and-black faithful eager for a taste of football after a long summer’s drought.

On paper, it looks like a lopsided contest. South Carolina is ranked No. 6 nationally in the AP preseason poll, while North Carolina is listed in other pre-season polls at No. 45. But this Tar Heel team is not to be taken lightly, Hartin said.

“They averaged 40 points a game last year,” he said. “I’m worried about them.”

Hartin, who is a host of “Fan Talk” on ESPN Radio, said the contest will be close but the “real” Carolina will win. He wants the Gamecocks to finish off the Heels so he can kick back and pull for Georgia to beat Clemson on Saturday. On Sept. 7, the Gamecocks play the Bulldogs in Athens.

As has been the tradition in recent years, Carolina players will take the field tonight to the orchestral sounds of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Stephanie Rivers, a 10th-grade teacher, said that moment is highly emotional for her.

“Just gives me chills, every time,” she said.

Rivers and Hartin were among board members of the Charleston County Gamecock Club who gathered Tuesday to conduct business and relish in the excitement of upcoming pre-game tailgate parties and a season that holds much promise. The organization has more than 5,000 faithful fans.

“It’s not just a football game. It’s an event. There’s nothing like being at the game,” said Rick Cutaia, parts manager at an auto dealership.

For Hartin, the game offers a chance to reminisce about his days as a Gamecock cheerleader, from 1976 to ‘78. While sipping iced tea, he joked that he was just as good-looking now as he was back then.

“I just get excited about football season. Everybody is just ready for football,” he said.

Monty Shealy whipped out his phone to show pictures of the condo next to the stadium where he and some 40 fans will dine before the game on catered barbecue, fried chicken and all the fixin’s.

“It’s a new year. It’s exciting,” he said.

The county Gamecock Club will be recognized at halftime for its accomplishments as a fundraising organization and its participation in community events, Shealy said.

Jen Skoy, a marine biologist at the South Carolina Aquarium, mused that her life is work and Carolina athletics.

“It’s kind of the battle for the real Carolina,” she said of today’s game.

Not to be outdone, local fans and alumni of North Carolina have been invited to gather at The Alley on Columbus Street to watch the game.

“Let’s cheer on our boys and show those Gamecock fans how we TURN IT BLUE,” the Charleston Carolina Club said in an email to supporters.

The game marks the 56th football meeting between the two schools, and the first since 2007. North Carolina holds a 34-17-4 lead in the all-time series, but South Carolina won the ’07 game in Chapel Hill, 21-15, and has won four of the last five contests, dating back to 1988. UNC holds a 14-9-1 advantage in games played in Columbia, according to USC.

Since head coach Steve Spurrier took over the program in 2005, South Carolina has played 10 Thursday night ESPN contests. Carolina is 8-2 in Thursday night tilts under Spurrier, including a 5-1 record at home. The Gamecocks are 6-0 in season openers on Thursdays.

That record will be on the line tonight.

“I’ve been excited since last week,” Rivers said.