North Carolina doesn’t exactly scare anyone, not coming off a losing season bogged down by the worst defense in the ACC. Even so, this neutral-site game in Charlotte looms as a dicey opener for South Carolina — which has worked to shore up defensive issues of its own, and no longer has a veteran quarterback who can single-handedly keep the Gamecocks competitive.
There’s no larger unknown for USC than the redshirt sophomore who will start under center. Connor Mitch posted eye-popping numbers in high school, but he’s been used only sparingly at South Carolina, and no one is sure how he’ll respond when the ball is snapped for real. Expect the Gamecocks to rely on more seasoned players like receiver Pharoh Cooper and tailback Brandon Wilds until Mitch finds his comfort zone.
Dylan Thompson was a record-setting quarterback capable of keeping USC in the game, even while the defense gave up score after score. Maybe Mitch will be that one day. For the time being, the pressure will be on a restructured Gamecocks defense to get sacks, generate turnovers and keep the up-tempo Tar Heels in check.
That defense has a fairly straightforward task: contain UNC quarterback Marquise Williams, who passed for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns a season ago, and rushed for 788 yards and 13 scores. Williams is a dynamo who can win games by himself, particularly if Gene Chizik’s defense shows improvement. Lock him down, as Virginia Tech and North Carolina State did last season, and USC’s chances improve exponentially.
UNC runs the kind of quick-strike offense that gave South Carolina nightmares last year. But the Tar Heels’ defense has further to go than USC’s does, and we’ve seen from UNC’s results over the past two seasons that pace doesn’t always equal points — look at 2013, when they snapped the ball 79 times in Columbia and got one touchdown to show for it.
South Carolina 27, North Carolina 23