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NC State Holds All the Cards Over South Carolina… Except One

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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North Carolina State and South Carolina have played football against one another 57 times, beginning 1900. The records stand just one game apart, with the Gamecocks leading 27-26-4. All signs point to the Wolfpack getting to .500 against them, in 2017.

North Carolina State and South Carolina have played football against one another 57 times, beginning 1900. The records stand just one game apart, with the Gamecocks leading 27-26-4. All signs point to the Wolfpack getting to .500 against them, in 2017.

Both teams, despite being picked fourth in their respective divisions, have an opportunity to make some noise, or, at worst, play spoiler to one of the favorites, this season.

For South Carolina, the offense will need to step up early, as a young defense tries to gel, if it wants to preserve any sort of contendership in a wide open SEC East.

Meanwhile, NC State, who boasts one of the best front sevens in college football, might not have the talent, across the board, to beat out Clemson, Florida State, and Louisville and win the ACC Coastal.

For both contestants, week one will serve as an opportunity to set the tone for seasons that each have a high variance of outcomes -- it would be as unsurprising for either of these teams to win its division as it would to finish with six or seven wins.

The Wolfpack’s most significant advantage will be in the trenches.

Kentavius Street, Darian Roseboro, Justin Jones, B.J. Hill, and preseason first team All-American Bradley Chubb compose one of the most devastating defensive lines in the country. Chubb, in particular, is one of the most versatile linemen around, with 39.6% of his pressures coming from the outside, in 2016, and 30.2% from the interior. His 39 defensive stops (wins for the defense) were also the most in the ACC, last season.

A year ago, that group finished 11th, nationally, in defensive opponent adjusted line yards, and 22nd in front seven havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles per play). That, obviously, does not bode well for a largely unchanged, albeit reconfigured, South Carolina offensive line that was 111th in offensive opponent adjusted line yards and 116th in offensive opponent adjusted sack rate.

NC State’s own offensive line, which returns four starters, will be similarly dominant, relative to South Carolina’s defensive front.

It was 50th in adjusted line yards and tenth in adjusted sack rate, even as a largely inexperienced unit, this time in 2016. Comparatively, South Carolina’s defensive front was 65th in adjusted line yards, 76th in sack rate, and 81st in front seven havoc rate. That’s bad news for a South Carolina team that is not necessarily on the uptick -- they have to replace both starting defensive ends -- and, at best, will take some time to find some semblance of cohesion.

Even with NC State’s advantage along the offensive line, however, it’s tough to say how effectively it will be able to move the ball.

Quarterback Ryan Finley was reliable, but little more than a game manager in his first season as a starter, and does not offer much in the way of stretching defenses over the top. His top receiver, Stephen Louis is back, as is all-purpose dynamo Jaylen Samuels, and he did lead the team to a final ranking of 31 in offensive passing S&P+ (a Football Outsiders combined metric that measure efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers).

The strength of South Carolina’s defense, at least in the early going, will be the secondary, though, with every starter coming back. They were 46th in defensive passing S&P+, with D.J. Smith, Steven Montac, Rashad Fenton, Jamarcus King, all back and improving, plus highly touted Jamyest Williams making their increasingly utilized nickel defense the most effective placement of talent, on that side of the ball.

If South Carolina’s defensive backfield improved even incrementally, over the offseason, it could be enough to greatly mitigate NC State’s efficient, yet limited, passing attack.

Should it become necessary to turn to the running game, there are notable questions for the Wolfpack, a team that tries for nearly even balance in the first place.

In the wake of Matt Dayes’ departure, converted wideout Nyheim Hines has big shoes to fill. Even with Dayes, NC State was just 66th in offensive rushing S&P+, and picked up at least five yards (when five or more yards were available -- henceforth referred to as opportunity rate) on 38.2% of carries, a pedestrian 84th overall.

Granted, South Carolina’s run defense was terrible, 109th in opportunity rate and 67th in rush defense S&P+.

The hope may be that South Carolina’s personnel attrition on the defensive line, against NC State’s upper echelon offensive line, will afford Hines the space he needs to work, but that may not come to fruition against the likes of linebackers Skai Moore, Bryson Allen-Williams, and T.J. Brunson.

It will be of increased importance for Finley to finish drives, as well. The Wolfpack scored touchdowns on 27.1% of drives and turned the ball over on 13.5% of drives last year, 63rd and 96th, respectively. Conversely, an otherwise underwhelming South Carolina defense, the Gamecocks showed a propensity to bend, but not break, allowing touchdowns on 23.9% of drives (44th) and forcing turnovers 18.3% of the time, the third highest rate in the nation.

The deciding factor of this game, as it will be with many of the Gamecocks’ early contests, will be whether or not Jake Bentley and the offense are enough to carry this team.

A very promising freshman campaign has the hype train rolling for Bentley, but it will be clear after this game if he is the real deal, or if it might be time to start asking, “Are we sure Jake Bentley is good?” given his relatively small sample size in 2016.

The sophomore signal caller will be under duress early and often, in light of the aforementioned disadvantage in the trenches, although, luckily for South Carolina, two of the calling cards of his true frosh success were poise in a seemingly perpetually crumbling pocket, to a vastly greater statistical degree than his fellow SEC freshman quarterbacks, and a quick release.

Bentley will also enjoy a comprehensive cache of weapons.

Wideout Deebo Samuel, as threatening running deep ball routes as he is with the ball in his hands in space, is in the top three, nationally, amongst returning Power 5 receivers, with a 3.3% drop rate. He was in the top ten last year, catching 55.6 percent of balls thrown to him, 20 or more yards down field. He’s also third, for returning SEC pass catchers, with 423 yards after the catch, and first, within that same group, averaging 2.47 yards per route run.

Hayden Hurst leads one of the deepest tight end groups in the country. In 2016, he set single season school records for both yards and receptions. His combination of sure hands and physicality offers Bentley an ever present, and invaluable safety valve.

Tailbacks Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner are both poised for breakout campaigns, but one could argue a diminished value in week one, against an NC State squad that was 11th in rush defense S&P+.

That said, depending upon how well South Carolina’s passing game is working, the Gamecocks could take steps to take that front seven out of the game, inasmuch as that’s even possible, especially by forcing linebackers like Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, one of the most underrated players in the ACC, to drop into coverage more often.

That concept hinges, for the most part, on the play of NC State’s secondary, comprised mostly of unknown commodities after having two defensive backs drafted into the NFL, and losing three starters in total, not to mention being without senior cornerback Mike Stevens (knee injury), who will reportedly be replaced by a converted wide receiver, Johnathan Alston.

As is, there are conflicting opinions about the back end of that defense, which finished 82nd against the pass, last year, although that was mostly due to the sheer volume of opposing pass plays, as indicated by their top 15 ranking for pass defense S&P+.

For a pair of teams that are, historically, separated by just one head-to-head matchup, NC State holds all the cards. Well, all the cards except for, arguably, the most important one. At this point, it’s more or less clear what Ryan Finley’s limitations are.

The same can not be said for Jake Bentley. If the sophomore, that is supposed to be a freshman, is the Ace of Spades that the hype train would have people believe, the Gamecocks might just have enough guns on offense to withstand the impending barrage, courtesy of Bradley Chubb and the Wolfpack’s vaunted front seven.

If not, the inevitable Pack win could jumpstart an NC State team that has the pieces to put together an ACC title run, even in one of the sport's most demanding divisions.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP