North Carolina leads the overall series with South Carolina, 34-17-4. The Gamecocks, however, are a 12.5-point favorite this time around. Thursday’s game will mark the fifth time in five years that UNC has been a double-digit road underdog, although the Tar Heels are 3-1 against the spread in those games, including a pair of upsets (Virginia Tech, ’09; Florida State ‘10).
South Carolina has lived on the front pages this offseason thanks to 2012 SEC Defensive player of the Year Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-6, 274-pound defensive end clocked a 4.46 40-yard dash this summer and expects to factor into the Heisman Trophy conversation all season long.
“He’s a great player,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “What do you do? You don’t trash your whole offense and change everything just for him. One, it’s impossible to do, and two, it would mean that we didn’t have a very sound philosophy to start with. We’re going to do what we do. We’ve tweaked some things to be able to adjust to where he is. But we also know he’s going to play multiple positions, so you can’t sit there and scheme for one guy.”
Not to mention that wouldn’t be wise considering the Gamecocks return five starters and various contributors to a defense that ranked 11th nationally in 2012. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward was content last season to rely on his stout defensive line to apply pressure while dropping his back seven into zone coverage.
While South Carolina is tasked with replacing two defensive line starters and its entire starting linebacking corps, UNC must also replace running back Gio Bernard and three NFL draft picks along the offensive line, including a pair of red-shirt freshmen – left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck – making their first career starts on Thursday.
“We’ve got to do things as coaches to help our guys out, too,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. “We can’t go in there and just sit back and have a drink and wait for them to get to us. We’re going to do some things, coaching-wise, to try to help each other out.”
What North Carolina will have is arguably the best offensive player on the field in quarterback Bryn Renner. The fifth-year senior completed 65.4 percent of his passes in 2012 and threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Romar Morris (386 yards, 2 TD) will start in Bernard’s place, while A.J. Blue (433 yards, 9 TD) and true freshman Khris Francis will rotate in. Quinshad Davis, who set UNC freshman records for receptions (61) and receiving yards (776) in 2012, returns as the primary option at wide receiver, although tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb represent a couple of the many options at Renner’s disposal.
“I feel like if we get enough time to throw the ball, we should be productive,” Davis said.
While North Carolina expects to frustrate South Carolina with its no-huddle, up-tempo spread look, the Gamecocks aren’t lacking confidence leading up to the opener.
"Clemson was up-tempo and you saw what happened there,” quarterback Connor Shaw said, referencing his team’s 27-17 win over the Tigers last season. “Our defensive guys are prepared for it and I think our offense can match theirs."
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier will counter with a pair of quarterbacks – Shaw (67.5 completion percentage, 1,956 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT) and junior Dylan Thompson (52.0 completion percentage, 1,027 yards, 10 TD, 2 INT).
Fedora told reporters earlier this week that he expects to see both quarterbacks play.
The Gamecocks were far from an offensive powerhouse in 2012, ranking 82nd in total offense (376.5). Even so, Spurrier’s resumé speaks for itself and has UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning preaching rules over specifics to prevent his players from over thinking and allowing them to play fast.
“The thing about Coach Spurrier is he’s got so many packages, so many different plays and so many different looks that you don’t know really what he’s going to pull out for your game,” Koenning said. “He may do it in your game and may not do it again the rest of the year. He’s always been great about that and he’s super hard to prepare for because of that.”
North Carolina, on the other hand, ranked 56th in total defense last season, but gave up 37.4 points per game over its final five contests.
The Tar Heels are looking for their first season-opening road win over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 18 USC in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic in 1993.