CHARLOTTE — The usual turquoise of the Carolina Panthers’ stadium was broken by a little garnet and a little powder blue, the end zones bearing the colors of the South Carolina and North Carolina squads which opened the major-college football season Thursday night. And the heat was right out of Columbia — 95 degrees in the late afternoon, though expected to abate somewhat by kickoff.
In the hours beforehand, the temperature was the only thing reminiscent of the teams’ last meeting, a 27-10 Gamecocks victory at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2013, played in a 90-degree swamp haze so thick it sapped even future overall No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. That was a loaded USC team which would win 11 games for the third consecutive season; that was a UNC outfit trying to find its footing in its second season under Larry Fedora; that was a game which unfolded somewhat as expected.
Now? You can chuck expectations like a Connor Mitch deep ball. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier, as straight a shooter as there is, accurately sums up his team by echoing the same four words: “We are an unknown.” North Carolina’s offense has been built up to be the Greatest Show on (Natural) Turf, particularly against a USC defense in a serious state of flux, but let’s not forget how these same Tar Heels — who return 10 starters on that side of the ball — were handled last year by an East Carolina team which lost at Williams-Brice.
So no wonder predictions for this game have been all over the place, with the Vegas line opening with the Gamecocks as a 3.5-point favorite, and that number dipping to 2.5 by game day, and one book even liking the Tar Heels by the same number. USC could win in a blowout, USC could lose in a blowout, the teams could go to overtime tied 3-3. Nothing would be surprising.
That ocean of vagaries aside, there are a few things we have a fairly good handle on. So let’s move on from the week’s-worth talk of unknowns and take a pre-game look at a few things that should be definite:
— Both defenses should be better. It would hard for them not to be, given that the Gamecocks finished last season ranked 13th in the SEC, and the Tar Heels last in the ACC. USC hired longtime NFL assistant Jon Hoke to overhaul its defense, while North Carolina brought on former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to do the same. Which unit has improved the most? USC might have an advantage given that its defense wasn’t quite as awful at UNC’s was last year, and it added potential impact players out of junior college like Dante Sawyer and Marquavius Lewis.
— Marquise Williams is the real deal. UNC would be lost without its senior quarterback, who single-handedly kept the Tar Heels in many games last year, filling a role similar to Dylan Thompson’s at South Carolina. A USC defense which struggled to apply pressure on the quarterback last season will have to do just that Thursday night, or Williams is apt to run and pass up and down the field. Even so, squads like North Carolina State and Rutgers were able to keep him relatively in check last season, and neither of those defenses will be confused with the Monsters of the Midway anytime soon.
— Mitch isn’t in this by himself. No question there’s been a lot of attention, and rightly so, on USC’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, who played sparingly in a few blowouts last season and is making his first start Thursday. But this USC offense also features an All-American candidate in receiver Pharoh Cooper, a veteran playmaker in tailback Brandon Wilds, and a left tackle in Goose Creek’s Brandon Shell who will be playing next season in the NFL. Mitch will have help, if he’s not asked to do too much, too soon. A little game management could go a long way, particularly in the short term.
— Elliott Fry is a secret weapon. Spurrier believes his kicker is the best in the country — while we might not go that far, the junior is unquestionably among the best in the SEC. Fry is coming a very good season in which he made 18-of-25 field goal attempts, while UNC kicker Nick Weiler split time last season and converted 5-of-8 attempts, none of them longer than 29 yards. Fry has never hit a true game-winner, splitting the uprights as the clock ticks to zero. He might have that chance Thursday night.
A few other observations …
— Darin Smalls, a USC defensive back from Summerville being used at the spur positon, was among those who were not on the Gamecocks’ travel squad for Thursday’s game. Tight end Kevin Crosby also did not travel to Charlotte, while Ulric Jones did make the trip as an offensive lineman. The Gamecocks are converting the former junior college player from defensive lineman to offensive tackle.
— Two more games will be played in this series, both back at Bank of America Stadium, in 2019 and 2023. You have to wonder if the Charlotte Sports Foundation will consider a weekend kickoff, the Panthers’ exhibition schedule allowing, given the Charlotte Observer’s report that about 50,000 tickets have been sold in a stadium which seats over 72,000. Columbia’s sports-talk radio station was besieged this week by callers complaining that they couldn’t get off work in time to make it here for a 6 p.m. start.
And getting here was half the battle. The football game coincided with a Charlotte Knights minor-league game at its nearby ballpark, blocks of ongoing construction which snarled traffic in some areas of downtown even hours before the game, and the usual crush of a city workday. The media was instructed to park in a nearby deck also used by a bank, which led to the sight of reporters circling again and again in the full garage, hopeful of spotting a bank employee heading home early.
So, yeah — maybe a Saturday next time?
— Finally, a comment from Gary Danielson, the color analyst for SEC football broadcasts on CBS, asked about his feelings on South Carolina during a conference call with the media.
“The toughest team for me to get a handle on every year is south Carolina. One year I think they’re going to have a really strong defense, and their offense carries them. The next year I think their offense is going to be really strong, and their defense has a bunch of turnovers and they have people that are sacking the quarterback and making plays. They’re tough to get a handle on, but one thing I know watching Steve, the thing we all kind of underestimate about Steve is that he finds a way to put a team together. Everybody gets kind of caught up in how good a quarterback coach he is, or how well he calls plays, but he does have a good feel for what his team needs. And I think his team needed some new voices an ideas on defense.”
Enjoy the game, everybody!